Heaton, P., Hermelin, B., & Pring, L. (1998). Autism and pitch processing: A precursor for savant musical ability?. Music perception, 291-305.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impairments in socialization, communication and cognition. (292) It has been used as an umbrella label to categorize children in the classroom that do not fit the defined "norm". Early identification begins with the student that cannot sit still, that speaks out of turn, that cannot focus or contribute in group settings and whose progress is consistently slower than other students in the classroom. But sometimes students who are labeled "autistic" do something quite marvelous that the "norm" cannot master. Defined as idiot savants at the turn of the 19th century, these were individuals with low cognitive ability who were able to master a skill in an isolated area (291). The fascination with musical savants is evidenced in this blog. While many struggle with hours of practice and performance anxiety savants appear to be musical geniuses with the innate ability to perform music. Earlier research concludes that savants are present in 1 in 2000 of the learning disabled population.
Heaton, Hermelin and Pring theorise that savantism may actually be present in higher numbers and set out to research the "precursor" to savant like ability in autistic children. According to the study there is a high frequency of savant ability in the "general mentally handicapped population". They cite studies that have shown that autistic adolescents have been found to isolate information, what they describe as "local processing" as opposed to making sense of information as a whole, described as "global processing."
Their methodology tests ten identified autistic boys, between the ages of seven and thirteen with no prior musical training. The control group consisting of ten boys with average academic ability but younger in age. The children were matched by chronological age to the cognitive age of the autistic group.
The children were given four pitches and four speech sounds linked to a picture of an animal. The note C was represented by a fish, a pig for the word "da" etc. After the pitch or sound was tested, the children took part in conversation for two and half minutes and then were re-tested again with the notes or sounds in random order. Pitch memory was tested after a period of one week.
The results were extraordinary. The study showed that the autistic group of children were far superior at retaining pitch memory and identifying pitch. However in the speech sound test, the control group tested higher. The results suggest that there may be something unique about musical ability in autistic children.
And has implications for music education in the special needs classroom. What is the untapped musical potential of autistic students?
In my own experience working with identified autistic children, pitch memory has not been the primary challenge. In fact, students work towards their first five notes quite rapidly. Music literacy has been the biggest challenge. The ability to put the note on the page and identify rhythm and pitch on the staff. In terms of music education, this study suggests that there may be value in teaching pitch first, through a listening mode, away from the staff, away from a method book. Have a student hear the pitch and have them recreate it. I am developing curriculum for differentiated learners that renames the pitch as 1, 2,3,4,5. This has enabled me to work on a unified line that everyone can read at the same time. But my work is focused on eventual score reading. Although the staff is eliminated, it is still music that must be read. How can pitch be taught organically, further simplified? Just pitch and instrument? Notes are discovered. Once discovered, then repeated and then labeled. Internalized, identified and played. It also intrigues me that pitches were represented as animals. In what way can notes on a staff become a familiar image to a child, autistic and non-autistic? Is that even possible?
This study suggests that autistic children may process information selectively, laser-like in the vast world of information. Music, which can be highly selective and specialized, may spark or activate savant characteristics in the autistic brain. The opportunity to discover the precursor to musical or savant like ability in autistic children holds real potential and the findings are extraordinary. It also has the potential to change perspectives. Autistic students challenged with a learning disability can be perceived as children that have a unique untapped musical potential.