At some point in their lives, most people feel distressed by the way others see them. It’s common for others to see people for surface level qualities rather than who they truly are. This can be amplified while living with a condition such as autism. One of the main challenges that people with autism face is the tendency for others to see them only as their illness. While autism certainly is a big component of the life of someone living with the condition, there is so much more than that.
According to a 2015 government survey, 1 in 45 children ages 3 to 17 have been diagnosed and are living with autism. Autism encompasses multiple neurodevelopmental challenges including speech and communication difficulties, as well as struggles in social settings. Each person who has autism is different, and will experience different aspects of the condition to varying degrees. One characteristic of autism that is seen frequently is an overactive sensory system.
Sensory Differences in People with Autism
Because their sensory system functions differently than most people’s, people with autism experience the world differently than people who do not have autism. They tend to be acutely aware of the sights, sounds, and smells around them, sometimes all at once. This can be extremely overwhelming for the brain. The sensory overload brought on by this hyper-awareness can be excruciating for people with autism, causing ailments such as migraines and leading to the meltdowns and tantrums you may see children with autism having when out in public. People with autism may be extra sensitive to touch, as well. Finding clothing that doesn’t cause them extreme discomfort can be a very arduous task.
However, the overactive sensory system isn’t always a bad thing. It can allow people with autism to enjoy things that the average person would just brush over, such as wallpaper patterns. It also may help explain the connection between autism and music.
As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to increase, it’s important to find varying treatment and therapy methods to meet the needs of each individual. One method that has been explored in the past and is still in use by some people today is music therapy.
The history of music therapy for autism can be traced back decades to Paul Nordoff. Nordoff paid a visit to a boy named Johnny at the Sunfield School, a school for children with learning and behavioral difficulties. Though not officially recognized as autism during this time, Johnny exhibited many behaviors that today fall into the autism spectrum. He was nonverbal and non-communicative, and did not even outwardly show emotion. However, upon watching and hearing Nordoff play the piano, something in Johnny shifted. He and Nordoff communicated through the music, with Nordoff playing at tempos to match Johnny’s movements around the room. When the session ended, “Johnny wept openly.” This was a major change from the boy who previously rarely showed any emotion.
Nordoff was deeply impacted by this encounter as well. In partnership with Clive Robbins, a teacher for children with special needs, he went on to develop the Nordoff Robbins charity, an organization dedicated to providing people in need in the U.K. with music therapy. The goal for people with autism is to use music therapy to help break down communication barriers. While music therapy serves different purposes for people with different conditions, the organization recognizes that, first and foremost, people are people and everyone is different. They work with the specific person, not based on the “labels of pathology.”
Recently, the news has highlighted data that downplays the benefits of music therapy. It’s important to remember that even if it does “work” for someone with autism, it won’t be a miracle transformation. Every person is different, and if music therapy helps someone with autism communicate with a musician, or carry those communication skills outside of the therapy session, or even if it just brings them joy, then that can be considered a success.
Though the success of music therapy is up for debate (and really up to the individual), there’s no doubt that many people with autism find solace in music. According to one woman living with autism, listening to music with headphones is the best way to cope with otherwise stressful situations like walking down the street, going to the gym, and riding the city bus. While other sounds can cause distress, people with autism may be drawn to music because it is, for the most part, made up of an organized structure of sounds. You can get very familiar with a song and always know what to expect. The structure of melodies and rhythm of most styles and music is a comforting way for people with autism to “organize auditory information.” It can also be a useful tool for helping memorize things, such as “scripts, task sequences, and academic facts.”
Additionally, memorizing lyrics to a song and singing them may be the first steps for helping someone with autism begin to speak. Music may also help people with autism overcome some social barriers. It provides a shared interest and topic of conversation to bond over with family and acquaintances. And, as with all people, music can be an amazing creative outlet.
A Wonderful Talent
It’s always a wonderful thing when interests, passions, and natural abilities collide. That’s what happened for Ashleigh Fagan, a 17-year-old living with autism. Ashleigh is partially blind in addition to living with autism, so her senses are extremely different from the average person. Still, that doesn’t hold her back from enjoying and creating beautiful music. Though she can’t read or write music, Ashleigh loves singing. To showcase her voice, her mother started a Facebook page for Ashleigh’s music two years ago. And, the response proves that other people enjoy Ashleigh’s singing as well. The page now has over 15,000 followers.
In addition to singing, Ashleigh can also play the guitar, tin whistle, and harp. Her mother caught on to Ashleigh’s penchant for music when she was very young, before she was even diagnosed with autism at age 12. Her mother says when Ashleigh was a young girl, she would play music to help Ashleigh fall asleep. Ashleigh also enjoyed copying the way musicians spoke, and playing with her Casio keyboard. Her musical talents blossomed from there.
Now, music is a great source of joy for Ashleigh. As she simply put it, “it makes me feel really happy.” Even if music isn’t helping her overcome specific therapeutic markers, it’s something that brings her happiness and has a natural talent for, which is a confidence booster for anyone. Ashleigh’s story shows that just because someone has autism, and in her case partial blindness as well, they can still have incredible strengths and talents. She is a great reminder how important it is to always look beyond someone’s illness and limitations, and rather focus on the many things at which they excel.