Specialist individual music lessons could hugely benefit children with autism, according to researchers Dr Pamela Heaton and Dr Francesca Happe at the University of London.
The study, which was funded by ESRC, suggests that many children with this disorder have outstanding abilities in tone recognition. "A lot of work has been done on musical savants with exceptional musical memory and rarely found absolute pitch ability" says Dr Pamela Heaton who led the research. "But our research shows that even children without these special talents and no musical training can have highly developed musical 'splinter skills'. If we could develop effective non-verbal music teaching methods, we might be able to understand more about the way these children learn and process other information." A series of music workshops in which children with autism will be taught to read musical notation are currently being planned.
The research compared the skills of six to 19 year old individuals with autism, and a control group with matching age, IQ and level of musical background, on a series of tasks into tone memory and discrimination. Using a touch-screen laptop computer, they were asked to identify musical notes by moving the image of a boy up and down a flight of stairs.
Although the children with autism had the communication difficulties associated with this disorder, a sub-group of them produced exceptional results. In one of the tests four children from the autism group achieved a score of 89 per cent compared to an average score of 30 per cent. "These findings were surprising, especially given that two of these children had intellectual impairment and none had experienced musical training. Autistic children can be highly analytical listeners and are able to access musical details more readily than typically developing children," says Pamela Heaton, who worked as a musician before gaining a doctorate in psychology".