Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Music, Language and Autism: Exceptional Strategies for Exceptional Minds

Reference: Music, Language and Autism: Exceptional Strategies for Exceptional Minds, Dr. Adam Ockelford, 2013, Jessica Kingsley Publishers


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term that does not define one specific neurological condition. It is identified in young children as behaviour that does not progress socio-cognitively through key developmental learning stages. It is defined as a spectrum because of the vast diversity and specificities of behaviour. Some autistic children are high functioning and need little interventional support, while others have profound challenges to overcome. Essentially autism is defined by three characteristics; impairment in social interactivity, impairment in communication, and an abnormal preoccupation or focus on specific interests (Ockelford, 24).

Maxwell is a 12 year old boy who I teach in my ISP (Intensive Support Program) music class who presents with many observed behaviours on the ASD scale.When I introduced Max to his first wind instrument, a baritone, I thought he showed real potential. His initial buzzing and tone were good. He played a big round B flat tone the very first day.  One unique aspect of his behaviour is his fascination with animals. He is totally engrossed and preoccupied with all things animal-related. I used his interest in animals as a motivational tool; the baritone became his bear that he had to hug and make music with. Maxwell responded well to verbal and unified whole class cues on posture, breathing and guided mouthpiece warm-ups. But over time Maxwell became grumpy, frustrated and began to act out. Different experimental medications made Maxwell comatose one day, hyperactive the next. In a class of nine ISP brass students, Maxwell's progress was not developing beyond making beginning tones and some ability to follow the rhythm in the warm-ups.  Maxwell was unable to press down the valves without assistance and was not retaining any memory of fingering combinations from class to class. Presently, when I work one on one with Maxwell, I do observe some limited progress and it is certainly possible that more time spent with him would result in further musical development. I chose this reference to gain a better understanding of ASD in the hopes of finding information that might help me work with learning differentiated children, like Maxwell, who fall into a higher need category.

Dr. Adam Ockelford  argues strongly in his book, Music, Language and Autism, about the need for an organised system of music in recognized targeted autistic education programs.  Music holds an intense fascination for many children on the autism spectrum. Ockelford believes that music can be used as a mode of communication,  a "positive outlet to express inner thoughts and feelings" and a tool to help children find and express emotions without resorting to challenging or destructive behaviour.  His research shows that musical processing is often more highly developed than language processing in children with this condition. Additionally, he proposes that music can be used to support language ability, communications and social development.

Ockleford introduces a new theory of autism and music, where music is used as a critical tool in language processing.  He rigorously analyses how children with ASD process music and proposes that autism creates an Exceptional Early Cognitive Environment (EECE) where all sounds are processed in the brain as musical structure, when children are introduced to music at a young age. Furthermore, his theory is supported by the research that 1 in 20 ASD children have been found to have absolute pitch and/or a strong or savant-like propensity for music.

Ockelford's  book is highly complex and difficult to apply to music educators in the learning differentiated classroom. He does insert some small lesson plan ideas throughout the book, for example, using musical phrases instead of speech, singing "let's go to lunch",  instead of speaking it. His final chapter focuses on ASD children who are exceptional in music but he does not provide specific pedagogical strategies in working with these children. He discusses things to consider in terms of performance to maintain the integrity of the child, and retells his own specific case studies, which are certainly inspiring but do not provide any one-size-fits-all strategy.

Ockelford reflects on the nature of autism and how the abstract sound patterns and the highly repetitive nature of music appeal to many children with this neurological condition. Children with autism see things in parts, rather than the whole picture and Ocklelford sees this as an exceptional advantage and an opportunity to celebrate difference. The book is intended for intensive therapeutic educational programs that work with children one on one or in small classroom settings.  Generalities are certainly accessible; being positive, open minded, flexible and listening to learning cues from the child.  But translating his research to teachable curriculum in the whole classroom setting is difficult because it relies so highly on individual student and spontaneous teacher response.






2 comments:

Doug Brenton said...
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Doug Brenton said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog. You touched on a lot of topics that many of us were probably wondering ourselves. The story of Maxwell in your class is very interesting and I applaud your proactive approach to learning new methodologies for new pedagogical approaches. Music does hold an intense fascination for many children on the autism spectrum and I can agree that the need for an organized system of music in recognized targeted autistic education programs is important. Ockleford is very correct when he says that music provides a positive outlet to express inner thoughts and feelings which can act as a tool to help children find and express emotions without resorting to challenging or destructive behaviour. I am happy to see more evidence showing that music can be used to support language ability, communications and social development. I am a little unclear how children with ASD process music in a way that creates an Exceptional Early Cognitive Environment (EECE). I will have to read further into this book but the theory sounds incredibly interesting. I am not familiar with ASD but what I found very useful in this blog was the idea how the abstract sound patterns and the highly repetitive nature of music appeal to many children with ASD neurological condition. I can empathize on your statement that children with autism see things in parts, rather than the whole picture and Ocklelford may view this as an exceptional advantage and an opportunity to celebrate difference. After I read this blog, I went online to see if there were any one-size-fits-all strategies in reseach, but everything seems to be subjective or it pertains to a specific type of ASD. I hope more research like this evolves! Thank you for a great post!