The Relationship Between Autistic Spectrum Conditions and Music

Music features in my life so much that it is surprising that I have never thought to write about it as a topic on here before. Today, while walking back from my local shop, I had my IPod headphones in my ear as I always do when walking around and I suddenly thought “Why not write a blog post on music?” So here it is! Obviously people without autism listen to lots of music too but, for the purpose of this post, I am dealing with the way autistic people use music, particularly the ways in which I use music.

As I just mentioned, it is rare to see me without headphones in my ears. I listen to music whenever I am transitioning from place to place. Even when I’m staying at my mother’s house where there is a Tescos just over the road, a 2 minute walk there and back, I put my headphones in to go over there. I also always put my headphones in when I am walking to work-again, a 2 minute walk. People often comment on how they have tried to attract my attention but failed because I had my headphones in (I know this is something I need to work on!) Music has many functions for me, enjoyment being just one of them. Firstly, I frequently make up scenarios in my head and select specific songs to act as background music. These are often scenarios that I would love to see played out in real life but lack the assertiveness or courage to initiate myself. Who says autistics lack imagination? My mind is full of the most fantastic alternative scenarios-I just wish reality was the same!

Secondly, I use the repetition of certain songs as a stim of mine. I have an extremely high boredom threshold when it comes to repetition of songs-I think my personal record was listening to “Vindaloo” by Fat Les 200 times in a row before I finally became bored of it! My housemates at the time will attest to how relieved they were when I finally grew bored of it-at one point, they were so bored of listening to it through my laptop that they muted my laptop to get momentary peace (I am usually very considerate and listen to songs through my IPod so nobody else can hear them-I think, at the time, I was between IPods!) My friend had listened to it so many times as her bedroom was next to mine that she even started hearing it in her mind when it wasn’t even being played! I also use music to support my physical stim of pacing up and down from corridor to corridor relentlessly. I did this at boarding school and do it now in my staff accommodation at work-I regularly bump into people while pacing the corridors. Luckily I live with nice people who just know me as eccentric and see this behaviour as an outward manifestation of this eccentricity so they aren’t too bothered about it.

Thirdly, and I would say most importantly, I use music as an emotional outlet. Like most people, autistic or not, I listen to sad songs when I am going through a tough time, angry songs when something is bothering me and happy, upbeat songs when I am in a good mood. To me, the lyrics of the sad songs, in particular, seem to express exactly what I want to express so much more eloquently than I can. Music encourages my emotional energy to be expended so that I can move on from whatever is bothering me and start again. I find this hard to explain but hopefully someone reading this understands what I mean.

Finally, I like the predictability of music. I can always control my IPod, even when it seems everything else has gone wrong at that time. Music is comfortable and safe.

I know other ways in which people with autism use music. Most of them are not specific to autism but autistic people do benefit hugely from them. An example is using classical music to aid sleep, something a lot of people with autism do, in my experience. Songs can also be great transitional cues to support someone with autism onto the next activity. This technique is used a lot in my own workplace and it really does work so well! Another huge way in which music is used (and sometimes I use music in this way myself) is to regulate sensory input. It is better to be hearing controlled noise in your ears than to be hearing the multitude of unwanted noises in, say, your local supermarket. Who wouldn’t choose to eliminate distressing noises with the sound of your favourite song?

There are also people with autism who have an affinity for learning musical instruments. Sadly, I am not one of them. I appreciate lyrics more than melody and I also have zero sense of rhythm. I also have fine motor coordination difficulties that make learning an instrument tricky-I did take piano lessons in primary school for a brief period but never got any good at it.

Overall, I would say that music has huge benefits for people across all levels of the autistic spectrum. I am not talking about the loud, pounding music you find in nightclubs-I am talking about personalised music. I believe that, used properly, music promotes calm and relaxation, allows the individual with autism to express and regulate their emotions and allows them to regulate sensory input. It can also be used to support transitions. Plus it’s really fun to listen to! Please respect the way we use music and, as long as it’s not harming anyone, don’t try to change this. Music can be so healing for our emotions-it can be a true saviour! I would love to know the other ways in which autistic people use music-if there are any I haven’t mentioned, please leave me a comment-it is an area I would love to learn more about!