Are you 'bear-ly' listening?
Music for Autism- Are you ‘bear-ly’ listening?
A Golden Heart, Soul, and Buzzer
Music for Autism: Are you Bear-ly Listening?
A Golden Heart, Soul, Voice and Buzzer
Whether you listen to Taylor Swift, The Beatles, Cardi B, or the ever growing sector of K-pop, music is a way for us to escape the real world even if it’s for 3 minutes at a time. This is especially true for those who struggle with neurological disorders. The power of music is a universal experience, and connects us by doubling as a universal tool of communication. We don’t always have to understand the lyrics of a song to get the vibe, or to feel what the artist is trying to portray. Music makes us cry, laugh, and express ourselves in a way simple words and actions can’t. Which makes it a wonderful alternative for anyone who can’t express themselves traditionally.
This years America’s Got Talent winner is a singer like no other. Kodi Lee is blind and diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. But that hasn’t stopped him. He made a powerful impression, wowing the judges with his voice, and earning a golden buzzer on his first audition, putting him straight through to the competition. The golden buzzer is one of the greatest praises you can receive in the competition, each judge only gets one, and it usually represents the contestant they predict to win. Gabrielle Union gave Kodi her pass at the beginning of the season after being moved to tears, and she was right to do so. His second performance earlier this season was also astounding earning him yet another standing ovation, and more tears from judges and listeners alike. But what is it that really makes Lee so resonant, and amazing? His voice is soulful, and raw allowing his light to really shine through his music. His moments on stage are heart-warming and a prime example of how music can help people through their troubles. Kodi uses music to express himself, like millions of others, but what makes him stand out even more is when you hear him speak. Lee, like others affected by autism, can have delayed and stuttered speech but to hear him talk and then hear him sing makes you feel like you aren’t just listening to him, but that you are really seeing him.
Lee talks about how music has helped him interact with people easier, and accept himself in this interview with NBC. Most people with autism find it difficult to communicate with others which is why they can often be labeled as awkward or shy when they may actually be extroverted. But music can change everything about how we interact with others and even the way we understand ourselves. Music therapy works by causing an increased connection in the brain where there is under-performance, and decreased connection where the brain can get overstimulated- largely through the visual and auditory areas. Thus encouraging less aggressive responses to triggers and stimuli, and a more relaxed brain. Neuroimaging studies have shown how participating in music engages and connects regions of the brain that involve hearing, movement, pleasure and memory “thus allowing transfer of music related therapeutic affects to non-musical domains through structural and functional brain changes.” In short, music rewires the brain to not be overstimulated so easily, and better connect muscle to thought to memory – which is everything music requires.
Music has also been shown to help facilitate the development of skills, and begin to shift aggressive or violent behavior towards a more controlled response. Music intervention improves the brain’s ability to learn, communicate, and express yourself. By decreasing the connection between auditory and visual areas of the brain, it can decrease sensory sensitivity allowing for calmer responses and managing expectations within events and relationships. The increased connectivity between auditory and motor connections can affect and change the way the brain retains and accesses information resulting in behavioral improvements. By decreasing the possibility of overstimulation, the violent reaction can be greatly avoided, and keep the brain relaxed. Adding the physical aspect of music to this more relaxed demeanor with a higher concentration and focus, music also causes the muscles in your diaphragm and throat to be more concentrated on rhythm, and fluidity when singing. Slowly learning to relax those muscles and reducing tension over time, allows for the fluent speech you hear when Lee (for example) sings.
Kodi Lee is only one of the few who use music as therapy. NYU’s Nordoff Center specializes in music therapy and the way it can be used to treat various mental illnesses. They published an article in 2016 using various examples of individuals who have found music to be therapeutic and helpful. Ethan James for example, has found his musical career as a way to learn more about himself. His journey has not only found him pursuing a vocal career, but has helped him embrace his unique qualities.
Our founder Joseph Sprung is also a member of the board for one such non-profit, Music for Autism that specializes in providing a comfortable experience for those with autism to not only learn music but experience it as well. They host free, quality concerts specifically for individuals with autism. These “autism friendly” concerts help ease these individuals into experiencing music with dimmed lights, lower volume in smaller non-crowded spaces. Having a less stimulating experience with music helps these individuals experience and appreciate music in an appropriate environment. And who knows, maybe even inspire them to get into the music business themselves.
Ethan James describes the difference music has made in his life through his speech impediments, “I don’t stutter as much when I sing. It allows me to experience what communicating would be like without my stutter.” He doesn’t wish his stutter away, he just realizes that through music he is able to communicate differently. And that’s just it, music doesn’t create a new version of you, it just releases the unique abilities that can be buried under the normal tensions we carry in our daily lives. Allowing those beautiful things you may not be able to express in words, be shown through music gives us artists like Lee and James. As Lee said in an interview before the finals, “this show was meant for me.”