We are indubitably a musical species.
Musicality is intrinsically embedded in our brains and, in one way or another, each of us uses it every day. Music, as a structured language with its own rules and aesthetic canons, is only one of the possible ways we use to express our musicality. I am convinced that every sound we produce with our voice, each rhythmical pattern we create or perceive, have something to do with our innate musicality. Our spoken languages are subject to some musical influence too, and prosody is a clear example.
An increasing number of scientific studies have confirmed that music has a strong effect on our mind and body. Music can modulate our mood and arousal, modify our heartbeat and respiratory rate, it reduces stress and enhances concentration; research also shows that listening and actively producing music changes our neurochemistry, increases dopamine release in our brains, reduces cortisol levels(one of the stress hormones) and lowers the requirements for opiate drugs in postoperative pain.
This is all very nice. But what has it to do with autism?
I am a musician, and I have Asperger syndrome. Asperger is a form of autism which allows a higher interaction with the surrounding world compared to what is usually defined as severe autism. And this is especially true with respect to language.
My Asperger’s diagnosis came quite late because, when I was a kid, even specialists had very little knowledge of this condition. I was then labeled as a weird, difficult boy; a very problematic adolescent, lonely, with strange obsessive interests and some kind of social deficit and anxiety disorder. Like many others in my same situation, I’ve regularly been bullied at school, and people saw me as a little freak or some kind of genius, depending on the situation.
One of the characteristics of Asperger is the so-called “special interests”. They are usually peculiar subjects, and once we engage with these subjects, the outside world vanishes. We are able to spend hours completely absorbed by our interests, and the pleasure and reward that come from delving deeper and deeper into them are unimaginable.
Since I was a boy my very “special” interests have been music and psychology. I dedicated all my spare time (well, also the time I should have spent doing my homework) to these two subjects, and this still goes on today.
Being autistic has made sometimes my life look like an obstacle course. In some cases it has been a real nightmare, putting in the shade all the positive aspects of my personality. The inability to fully understand others and the world around me, the regular crisis caused by sensory overloads, my sensory sensitivity and a lack of interest in my peers’ normal occupations, were only part of my daily pain. Anxiety was and still is always present. A simple change in my daily schedule or a detour on my way home can trigger an explosion of anxiety and, if I am already on the edge, a meltdown or a shutdown. And, believe me, you don’t want to be around when it happens.
People in the autism spectrum may have problems to manage a “normal” daily life. We need support but, more than anything, we need tools that enable us to cope with a world made and ruled by neurotypicals (the word to define people whose neurological development can be considered “normal”) and to manage our interaction and reactions to this world. In my case, music has always been the tool. I began to use music without even thinking about it. When I felt my heart pounding out of my chest for no apparent reason, I instinctively chose one of my favorite CDs, laid on my bed and focused on the music. Sometimes sitting at the piano and play loud, difficult and pyrotechnic music (like some Beethoven sonatas or Chopin ballades) was the only way to get through a meltdown without destroying my bedroom and smashing my head into the wall.
At some point, my second “special interest”, psychology, kicked in. I realized that music directly influenced not only my mood and behavior but also my physiological state.
I decided to try to use music deliberately, as some form of therapy. Did I feel empty, getting closer to one of those catatonic states typical of a shutdown? I forced myself to slowly sit at the piano and start with some music, also improvised, that matched my emotional state. From there, very slowly I tried to move to some more active music. Was I out of control, eaten by anxiety, incapable of focusing on anything? Again, sit at the piano and just do repetitive exercises or play very structured music, like Bach’s fugues. And, I discovered, this strategy works also with music listening, singing or even imagining the music when I cannot play or sing it, or have no iPod to listen to.
Over the time, I discovered and developed an incredible number of strategies that involve music at different levels to help me get through any kind of situation, from the easiest to the more difficult and dramatic ones. And this is the most important thing about it: once you learn how to use music, to adapt it to your needs, it radically changes not only your life but also that of the people around you.
During the last couple of years, I’ve started a collaboration with a great psychologist and music therapist, who is also the president of the Catalan Institute for Music Therapy. I’ve been invited to give classes to Master students at the University and, a few months ago, we decided to write together a book on the use of music-based therapy for autistic people.
There is a lot of scientific evidence that supports the use of music as a non-invasive, effective therapy. I am trying to gather as much verified information as possible and adapt all the newest discoveries to improve the life of people in the autism spectrum and, of course, of all those who live with them.
I will be posting regularly on this subject, but also more generically about autism, trying to explain this condition from inside, and hope that all the information on this blog will be of some help to people on the spectrum.
One more thing I would like to talk about in my blog is how people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are perceived and treated by others. We are often seen as broken, wrong (and this is a reason why I hate the definition of disorder and prefer the use of condition). In some cases, therapies try to force a change in our behaviors in order to make us act more “normal”. For my entire youth, I’ve heard my father saying: “look me in the eyes, you must look people in their eyes when talking to them”. And I still hear him in my mind today. Eventually, I learned how to do it, but it still feels unnatural to me and generates anxiety and insecurity. Of course, after such a training, it is now very difficult not to look at people in their eyes when I talk to them, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable and distracts me from what they are saying.
This is just one little example that clarifies how much we need to shift the paradigm of autism from “let’s fix them” to “let’s understand them and give them some tools for moving in a world they don’t always understand”.
Have a great day!