How Percussion Music Therapy can help with Autism

Autism is on the rise and has been blamed on environmental toxins and genetics but nobody really knows the cause.  It’s a frustrating condition for both the sufferers and those who struggle to connect with them. Music, particularly through drums and percussion instruments, may be the key to unlocking the world of the autist.

The dictionary defines autism as “a developmental disorder whose symptoms include difficulty in responding conventionally to people and actions and limited use of communication.” Other definitions are littered with words like malfunction, deficit, abnormal, self-absorbed and egocentricity. There’s even a reference to a “refusal to communicate”.

Autism used to be classified as a form of mental retardation and the medical approach to autism does its best to ‘normalize’ autists. Through medication and behavioral therapy, it tries to make them fit in, conform, sit still, concentrate and behave more like everybody else. It tends to focus on what’s ‘wrong’ in an effort to make it ‘right’.

Autism in a new light

But what if we are the deficient ones? In the book “Would you teach a fish to climb a tree?” we are invited to see autism in a whole new light. One of the authors made this observation about autistic children: “their minds moved at the speed of light. Words were not their preferred form of communication because words were too painfully slow, laborious, and difficult….. I now realize that they communicated energetically.”

Autists are not like everybody else but autism is not a disease looking for a cure. They are not wrong, abnormal, retarded or lacking; they just process the world in a completely different way. They see, hear, feel, learn, think and experience the world in ways that we do not fully understand. Trying to get them to follow the rules society deems acceptable is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole – it doesn’t work very well.

In 2007, researchers Kamila Markam, Henry Markam and Tania Rinaldi developed the Intense World Theory of autism which suggests that autism is the product of a supercharged brain. Autists experience everything we do but instead of a trickle of sensory information, they get a deluge. Their behavior is merely a coping mechanism for the overwhelm. Far from feeling too little, they feel so much that retreat is often the only solution. It’s not that they don’t have empathy, but rather so much empathy it becomes incapacitating. They are not egocentric at all but “extremely aware of themselves, extremely aware of others and in a battle for their life to hold back the intensity and pain of it all.”

The most striking part of this theory is that autism obscures brilliance and that “those autists classified as severely mentally retarded by the psychiatrist, may be the greatest savants of all.”

Unlocking the gifts of autism with music

This idea that autism is genius in disguise is echoed by many others, especially by those who choose music as a way to bring out the gifts of the autistic mind. People with autism are not disabled but superabled, however they struggle to function in a world where people expect them to behave differently. Music, especially percussion music, acts like a bridge between the autistic world and ours.

Bulgarian percussionist Martin Ivanov, a composer, conductor, drum circle facilitator and rhythm therapist, says about autism: ”It is important to understand that this is not an illness, but rather a state of mind.” He says that “Autistic children vibrate at a frequency different to that of other people. This creates a different state of mind leading to a behavior which is less acceptable for society. It is important to note that living in this different state of vibrations, they can attain and process special information which unlocks incredible abilities.”

Ivanov uses percussion instruments as a way to meet the autistic child on his terms by adapting to his vibrations. “Then we can gradually draw them out of their world and by means of rhythm we can work in the direction of positive changes. “

He especially likes the power of the drum “taking into account its nature and the fact that rhythm is a part of all of us, it is easy to use and can become an alchemic instrument in the hands of anyone. We do not need to have musical abilities and special training to create a composition of emotions with percussion instruments.”

Hidden Wings

Award winning percussionist Mickey Hart, who is a member of the rock band The Grateful Dead, also sees drumming as a transformative tool for autism. “Everyone with autism has a distinct and radiant ‘signal’. An inner music, an inner life. I [work] with Hidden Wings to bring out the gifts, the fire, passion and love of those with autism.”

Hidden Wings is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving young adult autistic individuals. After high school graduation, programs abruptly stop for autism and Hidden Wings fills the gap.  The founders believe that autistic people are uniquely gifted and should not be marginalized or buried in institutions because “They are capable of finding new formulas for the problems of this planet.”

Accessing the Love hormone

People with autism often use repetitive behavior and routine as a way to manage their world. Repetition is soothing because it is predictable in an unpredictable world. They also prefer structure. Playing percussion instruments like drums, shakers and bells can offer an outlet for the repetitive urge as well as provide the structure and predictability that autists crave. Percussion can help access the right brain functions of emotion and intuition. The activity also shuts off the mind “noise”.

Then there’s the endorphin rush of playing the drums known as the “drummer’s high” which ramps up positive emotions through the release of hormones like oxytocin. Oxytocin, aka “the love hormone”, is associated with increased sociability and bonding, decreased agitation and higher pain thresholds. Stimulation through rhythm can help repattern the brain and produce better impulse control. The other benefits include:

  • An avenue for non-verbal self-expression
  • Safe outlet for emotions like frustration and anger
  • A real sense of belonging
  • An increase in confidence and cooperation
  • Anxiety and stress reduction
  • Better self-esteem
  • More energy and focus
  • Emotional connection to others
  • Feeling part of something, sense of community
  • Improved sensory processing through vibrations
  • Greater creativity
  • Brain body coordination

Where’s the Joy?

Lastly, music therapy with percussion instruments seems to bring out something in the autistic individual that is sorely lacking – joy. A study comparing music therapy with play therapy showed that “Improvisational music therapy produced markedly more and longer events of ‘joy’, ‘emotional synchronicity’ and ‘initiation of engagement’ behaviours in the children than toy play sessions.”

Here’s to joy!

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Ron McDiarmid
Having had health challenges along the way Ron was keen to share the research and learning he gathered. Through MHLC this continued into a current presentation of healthy lifestyle choices and how to implement them. Ron also is a believer in collaborating with many experts in their respective fields to give the MHLC audience access to their questions and answers from specialists and professionals. Ron is committed to his own daily exercise with a combination of Yoga and weight bearing exercise. He is a Certified Raw Food Gourmet Chef, has completed 7 and 14 day detox/fasts and a 30 day juice fast. The immense personal learning, both physical and spiritual, of these events is also rich collateral for MHLC visitors who are interested and curious.