The Power of Music

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Almost exactly two years ago, I gave a violin lesson to Sarah* for the very first time. Sarah is a talented, precocious, lively sixteen year old girl. She also has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a disorder that influences her life in challenging, yet enriching ways. 

We have come a very long way since our first lesson, and have forged a wonderful relationship full of mutual respect, trust, and laughter.

Over time, I have learned a great deal about her abilities and strengths, as well as the challenges that many children with ASD face. While I have taught her how to subdivide complex rhythms, she has instilled in me many valuable qualities of effective teachers, such as patience, resilience, flexibility, and positivity. 

Today, she routinely puts together care packages of goodies for me and attends the local concerts that I perform in.

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Here is an Op-Ed piece I wrote last year for my Educational Psychology class here at W&M. It advocates for an increased awareness of neurodiversity and describes how music might be used to support students with exceptionalities. 

Note: Asperger’s Syndrome is no longer recognized as a diagnosis. It is now referenced as a disorder within the spectrum of ASD, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

*Note: Sarah is a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the student.

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Deeply agitated, Sarah stomped around the room and hurled her music towards the wall. Tears streamed down her face as she struggled to regain her composure. Feelings of frustration that had built up over the course of a long day at school now turned to anger as she continued to encounter obstacles even in the safety of her own home. Like thousands of other teenagers who live with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sarah was feeling overwhelmed as she struggled to communicate her thoughts. Yet ten minutes later, she calmly stood with her violin raised to her chin and her eyes glued to the pages. How did this drastic change in behavior occur so quickly? Music!

Like many girls her age, Sarah is obsessed with Justin Bieber, reads The Hunger Games voraciously, and is preparing for Driver’s Ed. However, she also has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder that regularly threatens to disrupt her academic performance and social activities. Children with ASD can struggle in mainstream classrooms because they sometimes have difficulty interpreting nonverbal communication, picking up on social cues, understanding the views and feelings of others, and properly interpreting vague or abstract concepts. I believe we need to provide these children with research-supported, alternative avenues of expression, such as music, that are outside the boundaries of traditional classroom learning (“Asperger’s Syndrome,” 2014).

In light of recent budgetary concerns that have handcuffed administrators and teachers, public schools must continue to fund music programs, or students with autism may be denied the opportunity to display their talents and receive positive recognition from their peers and teachers through a uniquely comprehensible, nontraditional approach to learning. The universal goal of educators should be to support all learners, regardless of their biological or intellectual makeup. While it may seem like a daunting task, research indicates that this endeavor can be accomplished when society begins to celebrate something called neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a recent paradigm in learning that emphasizes that neurological differences are not deficits, but simply just one of the many types of human variation (Wulf, 2015). Furthermore, it emphasizes that individuals with intellectual or learning disabilities enrich our communities and should be accepted by all. This idea of inclusion is predicated, in part, upon the belief that humans have the capacity to cultivate different types of intelligences, including musical intelligence (Gardner, 2011).

Over the last twenty years or so, the movement for neurodiversity has gained momentum as an increasing number of people have begun to advocate on behalf of the neurodiverse community. One such individual is John Robison (2013), an autistic adult and a current Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary. In 2013, he wrote a well-publicized article for Psychology Today that supported inclusion and recognized the different types of intelligences. While describing his own life with Asperger’s, Robison (2013) passionately implored the neurodiverse and neurotypical communities to work together in order to “embrace” and build up the strengths of those with intellectual disabilities (Robison, 2013, p. 7).

While there are many studies that indicate that music has the potential to shelter and accommodate autistic learners, (Adamek & Darrow, 2005; Hourigan & Hourigan, 2009; Thaut, 1999; Whipple, 2004), perhaps the leading scholar on this topic is Dr. Thomas Armstrong (2012), the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. In his book, Neurodiversity in the Classroom, Armstrong (2012) proposed that music is one of the unique “strengths, interests, and abilities” of neurodiverse students that we can “build upon” to help them succeed in the classroom (Armstrong, 2012, p. 20). In essence, he argued that music can be used as a “strength-based,” multi-sensory learning strategy for autistic children because it uses a combination of tactile (touch), kinesthetic (movement), visual (sight) and auditory (sound) learning (Armstrong, 2012, p. 36). Furthermore, he highlighted that music plays to the strengths of autistic learners because it is nonverbal and rule-based (Armstrong, 2012). Rules and structure are great tools for any teacher or parent, but they are especially helpful when working with children with autism, who thrive on continuity (Ozonoff, Dawson & McPartland, 2002; Soraya, 2014).

School administrations may suggest that core subjects such as mathematics and language arts should come first because there are ESSA and Common Core standards to consider. They may also argue that music programs are expensive. However, after working with Sarah for more than a year, I can tell you with certainty that music’s rules (time signature, rhythm, counting) and array of sensory characteristics have benefited her immensely. Furthermore, our lessons have provided her with continuity and a welcome reprieve from the stressful and exhausting social and academic pressures of school.

While some days have been more challenging than others, I have truly enjoyed teaching Sarah every step of the way. At first, I was just another new person she was going to have to learn how to communicate with. Since then, we have developed a focused rapport that has resulted in marked improvement, steady focus, and plenty of laughter. Now, if she needs help figuring out a rhythm, all I have to do is ask, “What do you think we’re going to do next?” and her violin is on the table, her hands ready to clap.

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