Music: A Window into the World of Autism

Music: A Window into the World of Autism

What do parents do when their two year-old child is quiet, does not point to things and sits like a stone in his car seat? When two musician parents were faced with this situation, music became the natural path to help their child. Karl is my son who happens to be musically gifted and has autism. He was that silent two-year old until music became “his window to the world” and the “world’s window to him.”

Although Karl didn’t speak to us, music “spoke” to him. He played music tapes and videos endlessly and at only two years old he could remember and perform hundreds of songs. My husband and I desperately wanted to reach Karl so we sang, played, and read to him and Karl responded emotionally to our music. Karl’s first real breakthrough with using music for communication occurred on a trip to the Bronx Zoo with his pre-school. Karl loved the small animals in the children’s zoo. He stood in front of a cage of mice and began to sing loudly “Three Blind Mice.” Then he moved to a cage full of chickens and he sang “The Old Hen She Cackled.” He couldn’t say, “Look at the mice and chickens.” Instead, he showed his excitement and knowledge of the creatures by singing their theme songs ala “Peter and the Wolf.”

Another early childhood example of Karl’s connecting to the outside world through music happened when his grandparents took care of him for two weeks while my husband Dave and I were away. My father (known as Pop Pop) could not convince his four-year old grandson to get on the school bus one morning. He knew that Karl was mesmerized by Pop Pop’s accordion, so he got it out and began playing as he walked out the door toward the bus. Karl followed Pop Pop down the sidewalk like the village children followed the pied piper in the classic fairytale. He gleefully got on the bus and waved to his Pop Pop, who played until the bus went down the street.

I believe that Karl learned to connect to his family because we are all musicians. Even though Karl could barely speak, he was comfortable living in our “music house.” Our house spoke the language of music and Karl became fluent in that language.

Along with seeing the power of music transform my son I have seen its healing effect on my music students as well. Children with autism often cry and scream due to over- stimulation, anxiety and frustration. I have seen student’s screams be turned off like a switch because music calmed or delighted them. Music can become a way to calm anxiety, be a positive motivational tool, as well as a way to communicate for children with autism. Music therapy offers yet another avenue to help a child with autism find their way in the world. At age five Karl began his journey with Clive Robbins at the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Center in NYC, which opened the window to the world even wider for him.


In Clive Robbins’ book, “A Journey Into Creative Music Therapy,” he tells about a five-year-old named Paul, who had autism and screamed most of the time. Robbins incorporated Paul’s high pitched screams into the music. Paul’s ritualistic movements were caught by a drum and turned into beating. Robbins matched his music to what children like Paul and Karl brought to each therapy session. Bill Sears, a professor from the University of Kansas, was impressed with music therapy’s effect on autistic children. Sears says, “In our work, we would take such a behavior (Paul’s screaming and ritualistic movements) and eliminate it, but you people, you take what the child has and somehow bend it, and I think that’s better!” Clive Robbins says, “Music seems to be inherently invested with the possibilities of communication between the child and the world, as it simultaneously promotes the awareness of selfhood as a separate but connected individual.” I couldn’t agree more, and NYU’s Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy program not only nurtured my son’s ability to sing and play music, but also gave him a way to communicate with people, fostered initiative and independence, and most of all, gave him a sense of self.

I believe that immersing autistic children with listening to music and participating in music therapy can help break the isolation of autism. Another way to reach these complex children is the study of a musical instrument.   The method of study we choose for Karl was the Suzuki method.


Karl began his musical training in my womb since I sang and played piano daily while I was pregnant. He began playing cello at five years old under the guidance of my colleague and friend, Dr. Connie Barrett, so he had the early training that Suzuki advocates. Karl’s progress was slow, but Connie and I continued to encourage him. Karl’s autism changes the pace of his learning. Instead of 5000 repetitions, Karl may need 10,000 repetitions. He may also need “germination” time before he can produce the desired effect. I believe that Karl takes in the music, and the instruction and knowledge incubate inside of him for a long time. Often he doesn’t seem to understand a concept until one day when he shocks everyone and just plays what he could not do for years. The first time Karl demonstrated this kind of “delayed learning” was when he was eight years old. Connie was teaching Karl a new piece called “Song of the Wind,” which he had been listening to on a CD for the last three years. As Connie demonstrated the song, Karl immediately played “Song of the Wind” perfectly. Then he proceeded to play the rest of book I, song after song. Connie and I were stunned and looked at each other with tears running down our cheeks. Karl had been learning these songs internally for three years until one day he suddenly catapulted this stored up knowledge out into the world. We had witnessed a miracle. But that day Karl had yet another miracle in store for us. He came home after his incredible lesson and sat down at our piano. He had never played the piano before. Karl proceeded to transpose the entire book of songs to the key of C major (all white keys for ease of playing) and performed them on the piano!

Suzuki describes Karl’s kind of musical learning when he says it’s like, “A seed planted in the earth. We don’t see when germination begins… We have to wait patiently… Once the ‘seed’ ability is planted it has to be carefully and patiently tended. … It can be a treasure when a person can accomplish and carry through his work to the very last.”

With Karl, as well as many others with autism, the hard things are easy and the easy things are hard. Memorizing music and playing in tune can be difficult for young cellists, but not for Karl. However, opening his cello case and putting rosin on the bow were huge challenges for him.

Karl was eight-years-old when he played his first cello recital at the Hudson River Suzuki School. Connie Barrett and my family were thrilled to hear how beautifully he played the song “Lightly Row.” We were even more thrilled at Karl’s reaction to the audience. Before this concert Karl did not look people in the eye and appeared aloof to anyone other than family members. We weren’t sure if he would even notice the audience. We were flabbergasted when Karl bowed and bowed and looked at the audience with a big smile. The audience was visibly moved. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw that Karl realized that people liked what he did. It was also the beginning of Karl teaching the world that one should not “judge a book by its cover.” The audience saw Karl transform from a child “lost in a world of autism” to a young cellist proud of himself and taking in the accolades bestowed upon him.

Karl’s autism took away his speaking voice but music gave it back to him. Now he is fulfilled as a musician and he can teach the world that speaking voice is not the only voice a person can possess.

Suzuki sums up the transforming power of the language of music in the following quote from his book, “Nurtured By Love.”

When the human race created the culture of speech and writing, it also produced the sublime culture called music. It is a language that goes beyond speech and letters – a living art that is almost mystical.

There can be no doubt that Karl’s window to the world is wide-open, thanks to the healing power of music. I encourage all parents with autistic children to use music as a healing force for their children and fling open those windows to the world!


Submitted by By Lynn S. Arezzini