The Autism and Perfect Pitch Connection
By: Henny Kupferstein. March 23, 2014
I teach autistic and non-verbal individuals to sight-read music for piano in the classical tradition. Using Skype as a conduit for maintaining a global practice, I incorporate musical paraphrasing to validate client expression. The reciprocation of sound teaches the client that they have been heard and understood. Being an absolute pitch possessor myself, I am finely tuned to the vast spectrum of ways that absolute pitch manifests itself. In recognizing such abilities, I promote a fluid learning environment based on the strengths that AP adds to the learning process. When I teach to the gift, the strengths eventually overshadow the weaknesses previously pathologized. Musical empowerment is the first step needed for non-verbal clients to be valued in a speaking world as abled beings.
Like many other researchers, I wondered about the high correlation between autism and perfect pitch. More importantly, how could I test my nonverbal autistic students… and why did it matter? (Kupferstein & Walsh, 2014).
In our initial session, we meet via Skype/FaceTime. The client and I get to know each other through a musical conversation. I pay careful attention to the sound that emerges from the instrument when the client is given free access. I match and augment their sound on my piano, to demonstrate to them through sound that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. For example, if they play an E, I will respond with playing a C and G together. This instills an association that they are contributing to the environment with a sound that they can create. When they have perfect pitch, they can do that very efficiently without effort. Musically, they begin to play more notes just to see what kind of response it will get them from me. When I observe the association made, the lightbulb moment is expressed in the client’s body language, and especially through their music. I then introduce the book of songs printed in alphabet letters and the teaching begins.
Parents and teachers are noticing exceptional musicality in autistic individuals, and researchers have sought to find a neurological connection to this phenomenon. Early pioneers who explored the autism and perfect pitch (“Absolute Pitch” or “AP”) connection are Susan Rancer, a music therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist in Wisconsin and world expert in savants. In our research, we found a near 100% correlation between autism and perfect pitch (Kupferstein & Walsh, 2014). In prodigious individuals such as savants, matching on piano and evidence of absolute pitch occurs in early childhood (Treffert, 2006). Thus, the automated response to pitch matching on the piano may be a primal ability that AP possessors can achieve even if they miss further milestones at two years of age and beyond. In fact, most savants possess absolute pitch, even if they are of the calendar-calculator savant categorization (Treffert, 1989).
Underconnectivity in autistic brains account for sensory integration differences and gifts. Sights and sounds are processed in the brain area that first receives it without sending it further to attach meaning. For such individuals, perfect pitch is almost always the indicator that highly refined processing is available in these areas of immediate reception of sound. This makes a very strong auditory learner. Auditory learning is therefore the only accessible means for learning prior to the bridging of other brain functions. This article explores piano lessons for non-verbal and autistic students as a means for creating new and necessary pathways for abstract logic inherent in higher education.
Sensory Integration and Learning Differences
The typical sensory system is designed to receive information and send it through connected pathways in the brain for assigning meaning by association. That is not the case for AP possessors and autistic brains. For auditory learners, reading comprehension and abstract concepts in mathematics can be completely inaccessible. This whole-word gestalt way of learning makes the reader completely unaware of what is important when the content is stripped of its sound. Therefore, PowerPoint presentations in a classroom can be meaningless. Classroom sounds such as students clicking their pens or shuffling their feet will also interrupt the understanding of the lesson. When sound dominates the processing of the meaning of words and concepts, background noises become foreground noises, making it difficult to separate for those without figure-ground thinking.
Different Way to Teach
Students with a highly developed sense of pitch have a special talent that many music teachers do not recognize. With the wrong instructor or instructional technique, a sensitive ear may actually become a hinderance to traditional learning, particularly when instructors are more eye-oriented than ear-oriented. Understanding absolute pitch and its spectrum can help instructors, students, and parents to realize the full potential of the musical learning environment.
The Rancer Method is based on the philosophy and experience in collaboration with Susan Rancer, a music therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of the students tested, 97% or (all except one) of the autistic students demonstrated perfect pitch. In addition, at least 50% of the population might potentially NOT be a visual learner. Especially with the perfect pitch autistic clients, most of the auditory learners also had a convergence insufficiency, making reading nearly impossible (at first). Susan’s teaching method (with 38+ years of success) teaches to the gift, rather than exhausting the student.
An autistic student with AP will arrive to a piano studio probably already playing. We want to get them creating sound immediately. We do NOT want to burden them with note-reading in the first few weeks, lest they are turned away. The Rancer Method starts to teach from the top down, since the autistic brain masters the complex first (and instantly) but struggles to break down tasks into foundational elements. This is especially true for students who are failing in school because they know the answers to all the algebra problems but cannot show their work.
The Case for Piano Lessons
Thinking in sound is a default processing method for auditory learners and perfect pitch possessors. Understanding how this predominant form of thinking pervades every area of functioning is critical for revising the piano pedagogy. Teaching sight reading, intervals, modes, and counterpoint is the greatest gift one can give to the autistic student. Especially for non-verbal students, being able to create sound in a way that is understood by the general population is a very empowering experience. For AP possessors, sound is the motivator for pushing through the sight-reading and achieving mastery in the instrument. When proficiency is admired by the local school districts, such students may be mainstreamed into a typical classroom to be academically stimulated as appropriate to their intelligence.
In communication, “neurotypicals talk to think”. As they speak through an issue, they begin to understand it. So too, Neurotypicals who are visual learners will need to practice many times to begin hearing the music. In contrast, AP possessors need to hear the piece for their practice to be complete. Therefore, if a piano teacher will play the piece for such a student, an auditory ‘tape’ of the piece will be permanently retained in their auditory memory, and note-reading is never mastered. It is important to teach to the gift, rather than label the learning style as a disability. Scientifically-based methods for teaching such a student are being written into a book by Susan Rancer and Henny Kupferstein.
Communication, Reading Comprehension, Mathematics and Abstract Logic
The early childhood development of crawling is essential for the integration of sensory information. These primitive movements develop the use of the eyes and ears to integrate all of the senses. The infant brain develops in the sensorimotor stage to wire the senses into the nervous system and then acquires speech. The early primitive reflexes which are very specific movements, finish that wiring. Therefore, splinter skills begin to emerge when intelligence moves along in its development, while sensory integration (and sometimes speech) lags behind. Areas of strength begin to emerge and oftentimes explode prodigiously. It is not uncommon for savants to be able to play back anything they just heard while struggling to tie their own shoelaces.
Associating meaning to symbols requires abstract reasoning which may not be accessible to people with sensory integration, autism, and/or perfect pitch. Academically, these issues present in the the classroom when such a learner can answer all the math problems but is unable to show their work. This is because they think in whole gestalt concepts and see the complex big picture. When teaching piano, fingering numbers are meaningless and difficult to translate into the tangible form such as the fingers. People with perfect pitch remember information by sound and not numbers, which explains why memorizing a scale by sound results in sloppy fingering.
Self injurious behavior is a last resort for a person to get in touch with reality. It is similar to a person pinching themselves after a dream to check if they’re awake. When a person’s environment has spun out control because the stimuli is constantly overwhelming them, the meltdowns happen more and more frequently. These repeated meltdowns are very traumatic. The individual might develop C-PTSD from the repeat trauma. As is true with all survivors of horrible trauma, bringing back some element of control in their lives is the beginning of the healing. For the client who has been pushed over the edge from overload and into the psychiatric state where the benefit of self injury outweighs the pain, extra care should be given to respect and understand the reaction to trauma, rather than write it off as behavioral. To begin the healing process, allow the client to engage in improvisation, and possibly insert lyrics when you pause during a popular song. Encouraging this level of creation gives birth to an environment where the client is safe, because they can control it. Teaching sight-reading empowers such individuals to create sound using a medium of communication not only to interact with others, but quite possibly make it their first time in their lives where they can control their environment.
Vocal stims are mother nature’s brilliant attempt to wipe out the overload by replacing it with new stimuli that completely overtakes. For those with perfect pitch, sound engulfs all the senses. Therefore, vocal stims provide a multisensory experience since it is heard auditorily, but also felt from within as the voice vibrates internally when being produced. A sound that feels comfortable is then latched onto, and repeated over and over, until there is a sense of calm. In Autism, the production of speech is a mashup of various areas of skill, and that might cause the brain to hiccup and the client might be unable to stop on their own. It kind of feels like a car that flipped upside down in a pothole and the wheels are still spinning. The client should never be disciplined, asked to stop it, or ignored. There is value in this coping technique, so grab on to the opportunity. Teaching music theory expands the musical vocabulary where intelligent music can be made and shared by individuals who would otherwise be misunderstood.
- Kupferstein, H., Walsh, B. (2014) Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch. World Futures, DOI 10.1080/02604027.2014.989780
Rancer, Susan (2005). Absolute Pitch, Relative Pitch – How to Identify & Test for the Phenomena: a Guide For Music Teachers, Music Therapists, Parents. Piedmont, CA.
Treffert, D.A. (2006). “Extraordinary people: understanding savant syndrome”, iUniverse, Inc; Omaha, NE.
Treffert, Darold A. (1989). Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome. New York: Harper & Row.