Autism, Music Instruction, Performance: Beyond Therapy

New research and an autistic rock band prove music is a game-changer.

Psychology Today, April 15, 2018

My 28-year-old severely autistic son Nat is a front man in a rock band. Yes, you read that right. And it’s a good band, that sometimes is paid for gigs. Yet in Real Life Nat speaks with great difficulty. Talking for him consists of lots of pauses and spaces between words and thoughts, so that his speech is delivered like random flashes of light, rather than a stream of information. Singing, however, is very different for Nat. When he sings, he utters full sentences, most of which anyone can understand.

Many of us believe that music does, indeed improve brain function. The latest research from the National Institute of Health bears out that — at least in the case of children: “tentative empirical support to the growing case for music therapy as an efficacious treatment in the promotion of social and communication skills among individuals with developmental disabilities.” A very hopeful conclusion, and yet it made me wonder: why are the studies so often about music therapy as opposed to music instruction, and performance? I found a 2016 study in Science Daily that discovered that music instruction in non-autistic children improved their brain function. Those scientists then extrapolated that this might be the same for autistic children.

So why not look into that, then? And while we’re at it, why not explore musical instruction and musical performance as a way to improve brain function in autistic adults? And finally, what if we move away from viewing autism as something only to be fixed, and with therapy?

The mainstream take on autism is that the disorder calls for treatment by specialists outside of the norm — for children and adults alike. However, Ethnomusicologist Michael Bakan approaches music and autism from this new angle: that we should not always be thinking in terms of remediating autistic people, but rather, provide normative situations with the goal of enhancing their lives.

Bakan studied young children, both autistic and typical, and observed how with improvisation and performance opportunities eventually each child “emerged as a composer in her or his own right.” Becoming a composer: how very different from the usual outcomes of autism and music research.

Enter my son’s band, The Brookline Buds. The Buds are part of the MUSE Foundation (stands for Music, Unity, and Social Expansion) which is the brainchild of special education teacher and classically-trained violinist Elaine Shields and her wife and musician Dr. Miyabe Shields. The Brookline Buds and their sister band, The Next Big Thing, are bona fide adult rock bands that practices weekly and whose musicians are all developmentally disabled. The musicians receive music instruction, and perform in public. The music instructors, also in their late twenties and early thirties, cue the musicians and also play back-up. The bands play gigs as often as they can, like any struggling musicians who perform at open mics and bars simply for exposure. Some of the members are learning songwriting and perform their own songs in their bands.

In two short years Nat has gone from tentative percussion guy in the back to a singer the entire band depends upon in the front. I was thrilled just seeing him up on a stage following the beat. But another part of me longed for more for him. I kept that to myself, however, because society’s message about autism is not to expect too much, and that I should be happy and grateful for any inclusion at all.

The night Nat became a singer took everyone by surprise. I noticed Nat lingering in the front near the microphone when the drummer and guitarist started playing Life is a Highway. The music instructors noticed, were tuned in enough to him that they encouraged him to stay there and try to sing. He smiled, and — sang.

Now that there are so many people on the autism spectrum aging into adulthood, the time is ripe to discover how music lessons and real performing might be a game-changer for autistics. If our society would think more like MUSE, we could be living the goal of real inclusion of autistics.

Seeing Nat walk up to the mic, smiling and rushing in to sing his part will never grow old for me. I watch how he counts in for the band to start each song. The other day I realized that they are now sometimes taking their cues from him, rather than the other way around. That’s the thing about inclusion; if done correctly, it works both ways.

Nat continues to grow from being in a rock band. He now has voice lessons with Elaine on Thursday nights. He has even begun to understand tone and melody.

Each rehearsal has its “genius moments,” as Miyabe says, pointing out new developments: the bass player advising the percussionist. The guitarist playing a lead solo.

Or that wide beautiful smile on Nat’s face as he learned what it is to be cool.