Autism – What It Really Is… and How Rhythm is the Key

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Article Review #2: Autism – What It Really Is… and How Rhythm is the Key

Since beginning at The George Center, I have come to realize that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is so much more than what appears on the surface. From my undergraduate studies and interactions, I was familiar with some of the common symptoms: hypersensitivity, echolalia, repetitive movements and behaviors, but that was barely the tip of the iceberg. In the past month and a half, I have learned more about ASD than I have in the past 3 years at university. I am realizing how much scientists, parents, and the public know – and don’t know – about autism. For example, many think that people with autism are generally emotionally detached and have little interest in social interactions. However, if you read some of our clients’ blogs, it is very clear the answer is no. Any apparent lack of emotion is more likely due to a difficulty in planning the motor movements to show emotion: to smile, to frown, to speak, to touch gently. Try telling your loved ones how you felt about them if you couldn’t move a muscle with intentionality. Chances are you would smack them in the face or not move at all. If this is news to you, you might be wondering, “It’s a motor disorder? How?”

Lagasse and Hardy present an extensive amount of research into the neurological phenomena in the brains of people with autism. Although they report that the findings are not always consistent, they discuss some common areas of neurological difference in people with autism. (I am about to use some neurological terms, but please don’t run… I’ll explain).

Firstly, the cerebellum is significantly smaller in persons with autism. The cerebellum is the “general purpose device” that communicates with other neural systems and prepares for movement (Lagasse & Hardy, 2013, p. 68). Thus, deficits in the cerebellum impede a person’s ability to plan their movements – to smoothly and quickly target an object with the appropriate force and direction or to calculate the path of a stimulus. Also, Lagasse and Hardy highlight that  researchers have noted larger brain volume in the early childhood of people with autism (p. 68). This could indicate inefficient pruning of unneeded synapses. Lastly, connectivity within the brain is often different in people with autism. Both underconnectivity and overconnectivity have been reported, one of the complicated results of ASD being a spectrum disorder. Underconnectivity between parts of the brain that are far away from each other can cause motor delays or deficits, difficulties with motor sequencing, planning, motor inhibition, and motor execution (p. 69). Overconnectivity creates clutter and static that make communication between various brain structures inefficient. A frequently traversed and stronger pathway may “hijack” a signal travelling along a weaker connection. Because of this mixture of underconnectivity and overconnectivity,  a person with ASD may be hyposensitive to some stimuli and hypersensitive to others. Similarly, some movements may be very easy to execute, whereas other are very difficult.

Thus, the neurologic research suggests that autism is a deficit in processing sensory information from the environment and a difficulty in planning movements in response. This information significantly affects the treatment approach that therapists should take to effectively help clients progress. It is not that clients do not understand or care about the world around them. They are just trapped in their own bodies, trying to get the words out!

Music therapy is a unique tool to help my clients with motor planning. Entrainment – the phenomenon of your brain and body instinctively synchronizing to a given beat – has already been extensively explored in the gait regulation of clients with stroke (p. 71). Rhythm provides a framework for planning motor movements. It tells a person exactly how long it should take for them to move their limb from point A to point B, and most importantly how to pace the movement that comes in between.

Other musical elements may also facilitate motor planning (p. 72). For example, dynamics – the loudness or softness of sound – can cue the force of a movement. The range of pitches – how high or low – can cue the size of the movement. And of course, the style of the song itself can increase the client’s motivation to execute the movement.

Now that I understand that autism is a motor planning disorder, I can use the same principle of rhythm for organizing movement to help people with autism to plan their movement as well. Only with this essential foundation can we begin to address their ability to communicate and socialize!

At one time, I might have seen a person with ASD and assumed they were just clumsy and uncoordinated. Yet now, when I think about what really is happening within their brains, I realize it must be a scary experience to navigate their surroundings. Just as it is difficult to move around in your attic when it is full of junk from the past ten years, it can be difficult for signals in the brain to navigate amidst a clutter of synapses. I cannot begin to imagine the feeling of dreading every movement I made, not knowing whether I would hit the person next to me or grab a pencil too hard. For every object that approached,  I would just be hoping it would pass me by and not knock me to the ground.

Remembering how rhythm, dynamics, range, and style can affect motor coordination will be essential in helping me to treat my clients. An important part of my role as a therapist when working with my clients with autism will be to provide steady rhythmic support during activities that require some motor response from them – which is essentially the whole session. Additionally, using live music will enable me to adapt musically to the client’s needs in the moment. Just as I try to help my clients execute intentional movements, every element of my music-making and facilitation will require intentionality.

A touching expression from Peyton Goddard, an autism activist with autism himself, recorded in Lagasse and Hardy’s article captures the need for we therapists to give attention to the motor system before all else: “Trying to be the real me, rhythm helps the motor frenzy madness to stop. You are all too musically gifted to ignore the importance of rhythm. Please know my body  utmost lacks rhythm. In music therapy I’m benefitted by pairing to your upping rhythmic beats to motor my body. Trying to be me in harmony!’’


Lagasse, A. B. & Hardy, M.W.. (2013). Considering Rhythm for Sensorimotor Regulation in

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Music Therapy Perspectives, 31, 67-77.