Autistic Children May Hide Musical Talents
Musical Training May Benefit Some Children With Autism
May 28, 2004
by Jennifer Warner -- WebMD Medical News

Autistic children may often hide outstanding musical skills and benefit from specialized musical training, according to a new study.

"A lot of work has been done on musical savants with exceptional musical memory and rarely-found, absolute pitch ability," says researcher Pamela Heaton, PhD, a psychologist at the University of London, in a news release. "But our research shows that even children without these special talents and no musical training can have highly developed musical 'splinter skills.'"

Absolute pitch ability is very rare in the general population. It is defined as the ability to identify musical pitches without reference to an external standard.

"If we could develop effective nonverbal music teaching methods, we might be able to understand more about the way these children learn and process other information," says Heaton.

Autistic Children May Have Exceptional Musical Ability
The study compared the pitch-identifying skills of a group of 6- to 19-year-olds with autism with a group of children without autism.

Researchers say pitch processing is a major difficulty among non-musically trained individuals because they do not have the language or know the labels to express what they're hearing, such as a perfect fifth, major third, etc.

To overcome the lack of musical training and language barriers among autistic children, researchers used a touch-screen laptop and asked participants to identify musical notes by moving the image of a boy up and down a flight of stairs that represented musical scales.

The study found that although the autistic children had communication difficulties associated with the disorder, a subgroup of autistic children displayed exceptional musical abilities.

In one test that required the children to identify musical intervals, four of the autistic children achieved a score of 89% compared with an average score of 30% among the others.

In addition, the autistic children performed on par with the other children in tests of generalizing their knowledge about the musical tones across octaves, despite the well-known difficulties in generalization associated with autism.

"These findings were surprising, especially given that two of these children had intellectual impairment and none had experienced musical training," says Heaton. "Autistic children can be highly analytical listeners and are able to access musical details more readily than typically developing children."