Autism Spectrum, Aspgergers, and Music
Experts believe that out of every one hundred and ten children, at least one is born with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As the name suggests Autism is a spectrum disorder; just like there are many colors in the color spectrum, children with an ASD vary widely between severely affected to ‘highly functioning’. There are many sub-categories in ASD: Classic Autism, Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome are just a few. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing mainly on Asperger’s Syndrome.
History of Asperger's Syndrome
Austrian physician Hans Asperger first noticed what was later called Asperger’s syndrome in 1944. Dr. Asperger noticed four children who were struggling socially. Although their intelligence was normal, they lacked nonverbal skills, were clumsy, and failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers.
It was not until 1981 that Dr. Asperger’s observations became known, through an English doctor – Dr. Lorna Wing. Dr. Wing published a series of case studies, of children showing similar symptoms. In 1992, Asperger’s Syndrome became a distinct disorder and diagnosis after publication in the tenth edition of the International Classification of Diseases.
Experts in population conservatively estimate that two out of every ten thousand people have Asperger’s, with boys being three to four times as likely to be diagnosed than girls.
SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES
There are many symptoms of Asperger’s, with a few that are more commonly known. Some of these symptoms are a child, or adult, with repetitive rituals or routines; in fact, they thrive on routine and respond very negatively to any changes in their routine. OCD, quite often, ties in with Asperger’s. People with Asperger’s struggle with socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior, and are quite often considered immature or childish; in truth, any interaction with peers can be very stressful. They can be uncoordinated, and struggle with nonverbal communication such as facial expressions and hand gestures. The thing to keep in mind is that Asperger’s, like Autism, is a spectrum disorder so people with Asperger’s can have all, or just a few, of the listed symptoms. (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 2010.)
While the actual causes of Asperger’s is still being speculated on, what they do know is that scientists have found structural and functional differences in specific regions of the brain of children with Asperger’s. These defects, most likely, are caused by migration of embryonic cells during gestation; it is widely believed that genetics play an important part. Furthermore, studies have shown higher levels of a certain protein correlated with obsessive and repetitive behaviors in adults with Asperger’s.
One of the bigger issues a child with Asperger’s, and that child’s parents, has to deal with is ‘meltdowns’. As stated before, children with Asperger’s thrive on routine, but we live in a chaotic world and sometimes routine is not possible; changes in their routine and ritual often result in meltdowns. A meltdown is like a temper tantrum, but
different. With a temper tantrum the child is angry, with an Asperger’s meltdown the child is overwhelmed - the common ways of handling tantrums will not work; you are dealing with your child’s inability to handle change or function under certain circumstances. Meltdowns are unpleasant in extreme – for both the child and their caregiver. They can last from minutes to hours, leaving everyone exhausted.
My son is seven years old, and ‘highly functioning Asperger’s’. This pretty much means he is not obviously Asperger’s; he does not have coordination problems, but he becomes easily overwhelmed, he struggles socially, and he has marked communication problems. In addition, he has meltdowns. In his case, a meltdown usually means extreme hyperactivity and/or antagonism, as he is also ADHD. What sets him off is not always clear; it can be anything from a change in his routine to a bad day at school. Over the years I have researched, watched, and talked to his therapists about ways to help him calm down, and I have learned a lot. I have used weighted blankets, helped him to practice deep breathing, taught him yoga positions, and rubbed his back. However, by accident, I stumbled on a lesser known way to calm him down: classical music. With the aid of classical music, he can go from running-in-circles-around-me-screaming-at-the-top-of-his-lungs to sacked out on the couch staring into space in, sometimes, just minutes.
I am musically inclined, and I listen to most types of music. One day, he was really hyperactive, and so I put on classical music as a counterpoint. About ten minutes later, he was quietly playing in his room. This could have been a coincidence, so I deliberately have done this on other occasions when he was spazzing out. Each time it has worked. Admittedly, I use this sparingly – I do not want it to stop working because of overuse.
For years, we have known that classical music is good for babies;
studies have shown that when classical music is played the activity in infant’s brains increases. We take home a CD of classical music from the hospital to play for our newborns. Furthermore, studies have shown that music, in general, raises the serotonin levels in our brain; serotonin is a neurotransmitter in our brains that helps maintain joyous feelings – lack of serotonin can lead to depression, OCD behavior, and has been linked to problems like schizophrenia. Silvia Maglione, a student of music theory, states ‘the peculiarity of music is that while poetry and literature must rely on the rational transport to inspire an emotion, since they are mediated from words, music omits this stage and points directly to stage of communicating emotions. Music does not pass through rationality to express its essence; it crosses right to our emotions’.
What does this have to do with Asperger’s? First, studies are beginning to show that, like many obsessive-compulsive disorders, people with Asperger’s have been found to have a ‘significant reduction in serotonin availability’. Studies have further shown that low levels of serotonin seem to be linked to the social interactions and communications difficulties found in people with Asperger’s. To refresh the memory, music raises levels of serotonin in the brain.
In addition, music’s rhythms can stimulate other natural cadences of the body; people use this to affect their energy. For instance, it is rare to play slow music while exercising, or fast music when trying to sleep? At some point, nearly everyone has experienced music’s ability to energize or calm. This is more so in children with Asperger’s who are so sensitive to everything in their environment. Maintaining a calm, structured environment is so important when handling a child with Asperger’s, and even more so when dealing with a meltdown. Soothing, calming music, such as Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ can aid is soothing your child.
Asperger’s is a difficult condition for both the child and the caregiver; it affects every part of their family’s life. Through research, study, and therapy the child can have a rich and fulfilling life. Music is an aid the parent and the child can use.
 CDC.gov. (2010.) How Many Children Have Autism? Retrieved 28 November 2010 fromhttp://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/features/counting-autism.html
 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2010.) Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet. Retrieved 25 November 2010 from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/detail_asperger.htm
 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2010.) Asperger Syndrome Fact Sheet. Retrieved 25 November 2010 fromhttp://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/detail_asperger.htm.
 CounselingResource.com. (2010.) Asperger’s, Serotonin, OCD, and Treatment.Retrieved 28 November 2010 from http://counsellingresource.com/ask-thepsychologist/2009/03/09/asperger-serotonin-ocd-treatment/