Musically Speaking: Autism, Music & Technology

Growing up with an autistic brother in a musical household has meant that the link between music and autism has been prevalent in my life and has always fascinated me. During my time studying in the University of Glamorgan (now the University of South Wales), I looked closely at this link, culminating in my dissertation: “Designing Technology Assisted Music Workshops for People with Autism”. 

Since graduating in 2013 I have been very lucky to put my findings and conclusions from this study into practise whilst facilitating various music workshops. It is something that never fails to amaze me – the link between music & autism and the practicality of technology is incredible. 

What’s even more amazing is that since completing my research back in 2013, this link is being used more and more when engaging autistic participants in music making activities. When I look at how music, technology and autism can be linked for positive outcomes I have found some of the following ideas:

  • Music technology engages participants through novelty, interest and visual appeal.
  • It offers a way of making music with “no wrong notes” and can easily eradicate the fear of “getting it wrong”. Using iPads, Kaossilators and other technology can enable a participant to create and sustain a beat, play complex patterns and more through easy hand movements or triggers.
  • The ability to use technology to easily loop and repeat patterns seems to be very appealing, keeping things familiar and removing any unexpected changes or sounds.
  • Technology can be adapted and controlled to suit each individual. Autism is a spectrum and no one person is the same – technology allows you to adapt to suit the learning and playing styles of each individual.
  • Music technology can aid communication, improve social skills and evoke positive outcomes in group music sessions. Using technology that allows participants to play together has meant that I’ve been part of some great ‘jams’ with participants using tech. 

Whilst this was true in my findings for autistic participants, these theories and ideas almost definitely extend in to my music sessions with all participants, not just those with autism. It’s like my brother says in his talks on autismsure I face some of the challenges because of my autism, but I bet everyone else often faces the same challenges like being stressed about something that changes unexpectedly or noises and feelings that annoy you.”

Using technology with my brother during my university studies - here we are jamming using the iPhone iMaschine & a Tenori-on

Using technology with my brother during my university studies - here we are jamming using the iPhone iMaschine & a Tenori-on

The study proved that the use of technology in musical activities with autistic participants could be appealing, engaging and successful. Through observing autistic participants, the easiness and accessibility of some technological devices showed that positive outcomes could be achieved almost instantly within sessions. The multisensory visual interfaces of devices also proved to be popular in both sessions with participants and separate sessions quoted by interviewees.
— “Designing Technology Assisted Music Workshops for People with Autism” Simon Parton, 2013

When looking at other studies and organisations, it’s really encouraging to see so many new instruments surfacing, techniques & technologies being adapted and the overall use of music and autism being used and showcased more and more.

New instruments like Skoog prove how technology can be utilised to engage autistic music makers. Dr John Biddulph shares his experience with Skoog and autistic participants in Benjaman Schögler’s (2016) post on Skoog’s website: A device that controls MIDI through an interface that looks more like you want to befriend it rather than it’s going to take several years to perfect your technique on it: miraculous.”

Kenneth Tay’s fantastic instrument Synchrony has been designed purely as “a therapeutic instrument designed to help parents and children with autism develop intimacy and promote understanding of each other through improvised music play.”

Companies like Drake Music and Community Music Wales are constantly breaking boundaries with their use of technology within community music sessions and workshops. By hacking technology (like games controllers that may be familiar to participants or existing technology like iPads and hardware) it can increase participation, engagement and accessibility. Hiller et al (2015) also found that the use of touch screen technologies increased engagement, social interactions and decreased stress and anxiety.

In a fantastic short article by Christopher Blake (2016) titled aptly “Why isn’t everybody talking about music and Autism” he states:

Do you think of music as the property of the music therapist who comes in once a week? What if it’s a bigger thing for many people with autism, something that connects very deeply? Could it be a tool for many of us to use, aiding connection, communication, motivation in our varied disciplines? Maybe you do already! My life, work and study of the last 13 years leads me to believe that it could be and to wonder why we’re not all talking about it.
— “Why isn’t everybody talking about music and Autism” Christopher Blake, 2016

One of the most inspiring things I’ve come across recently is a report from America on how students with autism make music with iPads. Adam Goldberg is a classical pianist who teaches music in a school in Queens, New York and after struggling to engage pupils with autism in music using traditional instruments he turned to technology and started using iPads. This has led to incredible outcomes and the creation of a new school band that has enabled expression, communication and creativity. In Goldberg’s own words he says “I’ve seen how far they’ve come, I can see what’s in their heart you know – musically speaking I can see what’s there and I can hear it.” 

If there’s one thing you do today, it’s watch this incredible report from CBS:

When working with autistic participants I’ve found that not only music apps for iPad are incredibly enabling, but hardware designed for producers, musicians and DJs are also very useful. Kaossilators, samplers (I use a Roland SP404 loaded with sounds & samples), synthesizers (I love using my Teenage Engineering OP-1) and drum machines.

I love using technology in all aspects of musical activity – in composition, teaching, production and promoting engagement in music. I love telling people to download music apps on their phones and iPads to prove to themselves that music making and creativity is not hard and not impossible.

Engaging participants with music technology - using the iPad app iKaossilator & Logic Pro X.

Engaging participants with music technology - using the iPad app iKaossilator & Logic Pro X.

The greatest thing about technology is that it makes music accessible to everyone. For all backgrounds, all abilities and all ages, technology can be used to be creative and make music. It makes it fun, engaging and encourages participants to push boundaries, remove barriers and increase positive outcomes – not just for autistic participants but for everyone!

To find out more about my work with autism, workshops or to connect, feel free to email me at simon.parton@hotmail.co.uk


References:

Blake, C. 2016. Why isn’t everyone talking about music and autism? Accessed 14 January 2018 <http://network.autism.org.uk/sites/default/files/ckfinder/files/Blake%2C%20Christopher.pdf>

Hiller, A., Greher, G., Qeenan, A., Marshall, S. and Kopec, J. 2015. Music, technology and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: The effectiveness of the touch screen interface. Music Education Research Vol 18 – Issue 3 pages 269-282

Parton, S. 2013. Designing Technology Assisted Music Workshops for People with Autism

Schögler, B. 2016. Autism, music therapy and the scope of Skoog – Dr John Biddulph. Accessed 14 January 2018 <http://skoogmusic.com/blog/autism-music-therapy-and-the-scope-of-skoog-dr-john-biddulph/>

Students with autism make music with iPads, online video, accessed 13 January 2018 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6uiB88-T-w>

Tay, K. Synchrony. Accessed 15 January 2018. <http://kennethtay.com/synchrony>