Music has a way of transcending typical language barriers; a poignant song can hold a deeper meaning than the lyrics on paper. In fact, research shows that music therapy may be one of the most effective ways for people with autism to develop their emotional intelligence. Music is a great avenue for those with autism to learn social skills, too. Music educators have a variety of techniques at their disposal for helping students on the spectrum build their emotional intelligence; here are a few of them.
Music is a powerful tool for helping people develop their emotions and feelings. It can help students with autism express themselves and understand their emotions. Educators can help students with autism develop their emotional intelligence by introducing them to music. Here are three ways music educators can help students with autism develop their emotions.
Many children with autism struggle to find words to express their feelings. But when it comes to music, it’s a whole different story.
There is evidence that children with autism love music and may become interested in music education at an early age.
I am a mother of three young adult sons with high functioning autism. I introduced them to music at an early age and they learned to communicate their emotions by playing bassoon, horn and baritone. As a doctoral student and music teacher, I have experienced emotional changes under the influence of music, both in my music classes and at home. I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
From 2003 to 2018, I owned and operated the Center for Education School of Arts and Sciences in Tampa, Florida. It was a K-12 art school for students with learning and developmental disabilities.
Every pupil of the school was obliged to become a member of a musical group, such as a wind orchestra, musical theatre, jazz group or chamber ensemble. They all took private lessons on their instruments with me, the school’s music teacher. I have seen, in my opinion, incredible musical and emotional growth in students with autism after they start making music.
For example, there was a student who couldn’t talk, but could hum melodies. Gradually, I realized she was humming different tunes depending on the emotions she was feeling, even if she couldn’t express them verbally. Her eyes still matched her emotions as she hummed a story she couldn’t tell.
Another student with Asperger’s syndrome took private piano and composition lessons with me. He could talk, but he couldn’t explain what he was feeling. On days when he was sad, he would play a piece of music he had composed to express that sadness. Similarly, he composed works for happy people, angry people and lonely people.
Research shows that children with autism can understand simple and complex emotions in music and are more sensitive to sensory stimuli than other children – especially with music, even compared to speech or sound. This could explain why some children with autism are gifted with music.
Musical emotions are not understood in the same way as ordinary emotions. They do not require complex facial expressions or voice tones, which are particularly difficult for children with autism to recognize. Musical emotions are more easily understood by children with autism spectrum disorders because they are less socially complex.
Incorporating music into everyday lessons
Music can have a positive influence on children with autism in many ways. Teachers can use songs to reinforce language for students with autism who have language difficulties. One technique is singing with vocabulary cards to teach vocabulary. Research shows that singing can significantly improve the language skills of students with autism and delayed language development.
Educators can also use music to help a child with autism remember important information when that information is associated with a musical sound, such as a melody or rhythm. A critical study found that music can be used to focus students’ attention, retain people with disabilities, and reduce their anxiety due to stress. Equally important is allowing children with autism to have positive emotional responses to music, which can help them achieve their social and language goals.
Consider education in terms of basic knowledge
The musical elements are pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, structure, texture and expression. When children listen to a piece of music, it contains consistent musical elements. However, some children with autism have auditory sensitivities that prevent them from perceiving everyday sounds, which can affect their ability to perceive loud or difficult music.
One way to help children who struggle with this sensitivity is to simplify the music by using unique musical elements. Let me give you a possible example of teaching. By starting with a song, the teacher can teach gradually, focusing first on the sounds of the piano. Once the student has mastered the first element, the teacher can gradually introduce the other elements, one by one.
If one of the objects became too heavy for the child, the teacher would remove it from the mix.
When the child is able to accept all the elements, it means that they hear complete music, are ready to move on to more complex music, and the cycle of elements can begin again. With this strategy, the teacher and the child learn about the musical sounds that the child can manipulate.
Teach your child online music
Resources for working with children with autism can be found online. These are fascinating and easy to obtain programs. To introduce your toddler or parent to the instruments and sounds of an orchestra, I recommend :
- Khan Academy Music Block : Instruments of the orchestra. In this way, your child can develop an emotional bond with the various instruments and the orchestra as a whole, and gradually learn to express the emotions that the piece of music evokes.
- Chrome Music Lab, Easy Music iOS or Easy Music Android are perfect for young children with autism because many of the apps on this site let your child learn music through musical elements without the music becoming overwhelming. The child can experiment by gradually adding elements that they can tolerate in order to learn and grow at their own pace.
- For older children, Yousician and Flowkey are excellent websites where your child can take interactive music lessons. Children with autism can express themselves through their instrument, even if they can’t pronounce the words they want to say.
In my experience, although many children with autism struggle to find words to express their feelings, music can help them understand and process their emotions by giving them the opportunity to express themselves. I wish you much success on your journey of discovery with your students and children with autism.
Photo: Getty Images Signature, licensed from Canva.