Connecting with Autism

Autism is easily the most misunderstood neurological condition in existence. The word itself has a negative connotation. Through music, we will be able to eliminate these societal factors that divide those with autism from the rest of the world and learn to appreciate them and understand what makes them “autistic”.

According to the official website of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS, Autism is characterized by “difficulties in social interaction and problems with verbal and nonverbal communication.” A strict set of implicit, unspoken rules exists in our society. They govern the way we act in public and communicate with one another. These rules and implications separate people with neurological disorders such as autism, from the people with “average” brains who comprise the rest of the world simply because they are biologically different and do not perceive the world the same way. As of now, “no diagnostic test based on biological markers currently exists for autism; at present, the diagnosis is based solely on observations of a child’s behavior” (Digitale.) To put it simply, autism is currently something that we, as humans, do not yet understand; yet our society feels as though it should be fixed. Since there is not a place for autistic people in our world, they are labeled as outcasts, and are sadly unappreciated.

By simply using the term “autism” we are putting up a barrier in our society. Organizations negatively connote the term as well. On twitter, there has been a public outcry using the hash tag “#boycottautismspeaks.” For example, one woman said “I’m ‪#autistic, I am woman, mother, friend, daughter, student, colleague, lover, I am many labels, I am a human being ‪#BoycottAutismSpeaks” (Autisia).

When children are first diagnosed, their symptoms are combatted by way of intensive therapy and behavioral interventions to correct them. These forms of therapy for young children focus on helping the child develop social and learning skills that will help them in a school setting. Treatments for adolescents with autism focus on “independence and employment opportunities” that will help them transition into adulthood (autismspeaks.org). This places an unnecessary demand on the integration to our culture. Attending school and attaining a mainstream job are both unfit for complex, autistic minds. Fighting autism is yet another cause of the growing barrier that separates autistic people from our society. By attempting to treat it as an impediment, we are not only diminishing those with autism, but we are also being ignorant to the fact that there is still a lot we can learn from those people. Because it deals with the fundamental aspect of the human existence, it can be our common language.
Music has a chemical effect on our brains, specifically in our cortical circuits. Cortical circuits occur in the cortex of the brain. This area deals with our senses, such as sight, touch, and most importantly in this case, sound. According to the New York Times article, “Why Music Makes Our Brains Sing,” “these cortical circuits allow us to make predictions about coming events on the basis of past events. They are thought to accumulate musical information over our lifetime, creating templates of the statistical regularities that are present in the music of our culture and enabling us to understand the music we hear in relation to our stored mental representations of the music we’ve heard.” (Zatorre and Salimpoor).

One of the biggest distinctions that differentiate those with autism is the developmental abnormality that occurs in the cortical circuits of their brains. Circuits are sets of interconnected neurons form pathways and networks to allow for the travel of chemical signals. They continue to shift, change and multiply throughout our lifetime as we form memories or are introduced to different information (Tau and Peterson). Up until recently, it was believed that autistic peoples brains had a lack of this connective property. However the most recent breakthroughs have proved quite the opposite. Just this past summer, The Standford School of Medicine observed brain connectivity in those with autism. Dr. Vinod Menon, the man who led the study, took a look at the simultaneous activation of signals, which caused synchronization among different parts of the brain. He described their brains to be “hyper connected.” This study led to the current widespread hypothesis that their brains are not deficient at all. There is a vast abundance of connections that overlap parts of their brain and create a state of mind that is biologically impossible for the average person to identify with. So in actuality you could say that their brains are “on overload.”

This element of hyper and overlapping connection means that their way of processing music is a multi-perceptual experience. Considering the cortex of the brain is attributed with the senses, observing the way autistic people respond to music can give us clues to the activity of their cortical circuits. For example, someone’s optical circuits could overlap with their auditory circuits and make their own connections amongst each other. So, when this individual listens to a piece of music they would visually experience that sound as well. Although the integration of different circuits is evidence to this theory, the abstract nature of this concept makes it physically impossible for the average person to comprehend. “The distinguishing feature in autism is an inability to relate to others” (Graham). This could explain why the only people who know what it is like to have these kinds of connections are those who experience them.

The Discovery Science channel aired a documentary in 2008 about the life of a man named Kim Peek, one of the most well known savants. He was asked the question “What do you know about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” by Dr. Treffort, the man who invested most of his time into researching Kim’s fascinating mind. He replied by explaining that the symphony begins with three short notes followed by one long one, and three dots and a dash is the Morse code for the letter V. He went on to say that the letter V in roman numerals represents the number five, hence the connection back to Beethoven’s “Fifth” Symphony. When I asked my roommates, who are examples of people with average brain’s, this same question, they replied by saying it reminded them of “movies” and “action.” Their responses were much less complex. Kim Peek’s response, I believe, is one of the greatest examples of how different connective properties in the brain make people with neurological disorders experience music in ways that are unimaginable to the average person. Kim Peek did not necessarily have autism because he was able to properly communicate with others and act “normally” in social situations. However, his brain had the exact same type of hyper connective quality as Dr. Vid Menon discovered in those with autism.

Instead of trying to change autistic people to fit in with our society, we should try to understand the chemical makeup of their brains and learn to appreciate them. Once we have a better understanding of how and why they listen to music the way they do, we will have evidence to the connective properties in their brains, and therefore be able to explore the reasons why they seem so different. In turn, this will breakdown the barriers that keep us separate, and generate a society where they do not need to be forcibly integrated.

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