The Musical Communication of Autism

When he reached the age where most children started talking, Lucas remained silent. He didn’t speak and, at the time, barely interacted with us. Sure, he’d giggle when we tickled him or sit quietly for a story, but there was little verification that he actually understood what was happening. The only things that seemed to captivate his attention were the musical videos we would replay almost constantly

musicAt the time, professionals would try to ease our mind about his lack of speech by insisting that “verbal language” wasn’t important. What was truly important was “receptive language.” With smiles on their faces, these doctors and teachers would assure us that it wasn’t about what he said but what he understood. That’s what truly is important.

We’d smile back but, honestly, those words offered no comfort. In fact, they made us feel worse because we had no idea if he understood much. There seemed to be a lot that he didn’t understand. Sometimes one of us would walk in the room and he wouldn’t react at all.  It was a sad time and, frankly, kind of scary. I wondered what his future would look like and if he would ever be able to find common communication.

I let his music keep playing, though. I had read an article that mentioned how music helped to foster language in non-verbal children.  The idea was that the repetition of the songs eventually led to emulated sounds and, although still not traditional “words”, was a step in the right direction. So Raffi. Laurie Berkner, and Sesame Street songs all stayed on the constant loop.

My daughter, who was about six at the time, asked why Lucas got to watch the same shows over and over again. I explained that it could help with his words and was actually good for children who don’t talk to watch the same songs repeatedly.  To this, she responded with her traditional dead pan delivery.

Yes and it drives the people who do talk crazy.

When I pointed out how her shows were much more annoying than his, we both had a funny-cause-it’s-true laugh and Raffi played on.

As time went by, Lucas started to come around more in terms of his presence in our lives. While he didn’t develop any spoken language and still, at seven, has not, his understanding has increased by leaps and bounds. Sure, I can take credit for this big achievement. We can all take credit and pat ourselves on the back, but deep down we know the truth.

It’s all because of the music.

The first thing Lucas ever really interacted with me about was the song “Brush Your Teeth” by Raffi. I had seen this concert, literally, over a thousand times. I know every song, every ad-lib, every audience call out, and every line by heart. When it would come on, I would sing along and emulate the motions Raffi would make. From knocking on the door to when he mistakenly brushes his hair instead of his teeth, I would do it all.

Then, out of nowhere Lucas started doing it.

To this day, he does the door knock at the appropriate spot and rubs his head at the hair brushing part. It’s become our song and, as the years have passed, more songs have entered into our shared musical playlist.

music2As soon as “Shake Your Sillies Out” comes on, Lucas runs over, grabs my hand, and starts to jump up and down for me to join in. When Raffi changes the hand clapping of “Happy and You Know It” to mooing like a cow, Lucas leans his face in front of mine to make sure I moo along. He swishes his arms like the windshield wipers on the bus and he bops up and down just like the people riding along do.  He does a lot of stuff now and now a lot of the stuff he does comes from music.

Because of that, I’ve begun adapting music into his everyday life. It used to be a chore to get him upstairs for a bath. Even though he loves splashing around, he hated going up because he assumed he would be heading to bed. Then, I turned it into a basic song.

Take a bath-bath-bath, bath-bath-bathy-bathy-bath-bath-bath…

I’d swing my arms back and forth in tune to my non-melodic tones. Before long, Lucas was not only running up the stairs but swinging his arms along to the tune.  We’d sing our way up the steps and sing our way all the way through bath time to bed.  There’s a lot of singing at bedtime. I’m like a regular Mary Poppins ova here.

Here’s the most amazing part of it all, though.  Over time, he began to recognize words from the song and identify them. Soon, I didn’t need to sing “bath” repeatedly to get the point across. I’d simply say “time for a bath” and he would head up the stairs. The first time it happened, it blew my mind. This concept that I had used in order to communicate information to him had evolved into something more.  It became a concept that I used to build his receptive language to spoken words.  It was bridging these gaps that I worried would forever keep us apart.

For my son, music is the key. I’ve prevented meltdowns by singing the opening line to “Wheels on the Bus”.  With tears streaming down his face, I lean in close and whisper, “Thuhhhhhhhh….”  If he smiles, I follow up with “…wheels on the bus go round and round.” If he doesn’t, we move on.  Most times, though, he’ll drop the tantrum and excitedly play along.

Autism or not, sing to your kids. Even if you, like me, never sing for anyone else, do it for them. There’s no greater way to bond with a child, whether they are or aren’t on the spectrum. Do it for yourself too. After all, we can all use a little more music in our lives.