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Autism Coach

Gifted and Disabled

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Intriguing Connections Between Giftedness, Autism, Music and Language

Recent studies of gifted and talented children indicates that gifted children typically also have disabilities in language related or social skills. Interestingly 1 in 10 children within the autism spectrum exhibit gifted or savant abilities.

Both gifted and autistic children tend to have skills that are based in the right brain – they typically have a larger right brain and are more likely to have anomalies in the left brain.   Gifted or savant ability typically occurs in right brain skills such as art, music, and math.   Deficits in these same children typically occur in the brain activities normally handled by the left brain such as language and social skills.

Boys are much more likely to be gifted or autistic. Six times as many boys are diagnosed autistic as girls.   Recent research also indicates that left brain is slower to develop in boys than girls.

There are still huge unanswered questions about how the brain functions – and the scientific model of the brain as revealed by science is constantly shifting. However, data is now pouring in from scientists using MRI and CAT scan technology to observe which sections of the brain are active during different activities and from testing of how the brains of the neuro-typical population differs from those with learning disabilities and brain damage due to strokes and other injuries.

A new left brain/right brain picture is starting to emerge – it appears more as if functions in the right and left brain typically mirror each other, but that the right brain is more general, and the left brain is more detail-oriented. This has important implications for autism. The right side of the brain that deals with interpreting input from sound addresses the broader interpretation of sound such as frequencies and pitch associated with music and the left side tends to address the details of sound, including the discrete interpretation of sound in the form of language.

Autistic children typically have minimal or no impairment in musical ability – they do not pick up nuance in facial expression but do pick up emotional nuance in music – but can distinguish happy from sad music.   Researchers have found that students with autism often exhibit a high level of preference for music and show little deficit in processing musical components although they may have processing difficulties in non-musical areas. Many individuals with autism demonstrate a highly accurate memory for song lyrics, increased initiation of singing compared with speaking, and significant increases in attention, motivation, and emotional engagement during music activities.   Recent research has also determined that there is an area in the right half of the brain known to interpret written musical notes and passages of notes, that corresponds in location to the left-half area of the brain known to interpret written letters and words.

Research shows that the structure of music and people's use of it are similar in key respects to language structure and use. That fact that the right-brain region for notes and musical passages corresponds to the left-brain region for letters and words illustrates how a neural mechanism that may be present in each of the two brain hemispheres becomes specially adapted for similar purposes but with different information or contexts. A study involved mapping the brain locations activated in eight right-handed Ph.D. faculty musicians as they simultaneously listened to a performance of and read the score of a Bach chorale. On each trial, there were deliberately placed errors in either rhythm, harmony, or melody. All three trails showed the subjects to have a distinct pattern of brain activity, indicating visual processing of musical notes, distributed to right-brain areas corresponding in location to the left-brain areas of visual word processing.

In stroke patients who experience damage in the language areas on the left side of the brain, it appears as if the mirror area of the right side of the brain takes over this function as the patient recovers language ability, much as an understudy in a play takes over when the star is unable to perform.  

The implications of this research is that music can be a powerful therapeutic tool for building language and language rehabilitation within the brain. Some people who have difficulty with stuttering, will not stutter when they sing their words. Subjects sing what they want to say, and some improve their fluency of speech. The implications for autism is that we have an opportunity to use music as a bridge to language – to train the musical area of the brain to take on the ability to comprehend and process language.  

Singing to your child, having your child sing, playing music (especially classical and harmonious music), teaching through musical songs, and teaching dance or rhythmical movement to music may help to create the organizational structures that can be used to build language.

Piano lessons for higher functioning children appear to be especially beneficial because the piano strengthens so many areas of cognitive function and undoubtedly builds cross connections.  Areas that piano strengthens include:  bilateral coordination (using two hands to play), auditory processing, memory (remembering sequences of numbers), fine motor coordination (strengthening fingers leads to improved handwriting).

Experts are still exploring the frontiers of the brain, but we as parents can use the latest research to gain greater insights into understanding the true nature of autism and apply this knowledge to help our children.