Autism Spectrum Disorders are developmental disorders caused by failure of the brain to develop normally. They are characterized by impaired social and communication skills including spoken language, as well as repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior such as body rocking, hand flapping and other self-stimulatory movements. Uneven cognitive development is common and intellectual disability is present in a large percentage of individuals with ASD. Twenty to forty percent have epileptic seizures. Blindness is also common in people with ASD, although it is a co-ocurring condition and not a characteristic of the disorders. It is found in 1in150 children and it is2 to 4time more frequent in boys than girls. It probably has a genetic component because a person with a child with ASD has a 50 to 100 percent higher chance of having a second child with ASD than the general population.
There are several disorders in the spectrum; the most common one is Autism. Asperger’s disease is also part of the spectrum. The cognitive, and language deficits are less sever compared to Autism but these individuals are socially isolated because they do not comprehend social cues and have severe difficulty with interpersonal relationships. The self-stimulatory behaviors so common to Autism are less recognizable or absent, but they often have poor coordination and problems with clumsiness and gait. They demonstrate repetitive behavior patterns. They have unusual sensitivity to noise, food odors, texture, and tastes and clothing and environmental textures. People with Asperger’s behave oddly, and are often labeled as being eccentric. Their cognitive processing is extremely concrete, including their use of language, and they do not understand abstractions or jokes (Sulkes Np). My interest in ASD is related to the literature about people with ASD being helped through being taught music as well as the literature on the gifted autistic musicians, some of whom are considered musical prodigies, who are known as musical savants. Savant Syndrome is an extraordinary condition in a person with serious mental, motor and other disabilities who also has some “island of genius” (Treffert) in startling contrast to their overall handicap (Np.). It has been estimated that many as one in 10 autistic people has such remarkable abilities in some degree (Treffert Np.). It also can happen in other developmental disabilities or in the presence of central nervous system injury or brain disease so not all savants are autistic.
In this unusual condition people with serious cognitive, social and motor disabilities also display unique and at times genius level cognitive skills in the areas of music, art, mechanical ability, and mathematics skills. Savants will approach their special skills very compulsively and practice them over and over to the point of being obsessed with them. We do know that no matter what area of skill the savant ability surfaces in it is always linked to having massive memory. On If you know the movie Rain Man (1988) starring Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, the autistic brother, you have observed a mathematical savant. The real person on whom the character Raymond Babbit was based on is a male now in his fifties who has memorized over 8,600 books and has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, music, literature, history, sports, and 9 other areas of expertise. He can name all theUSarea codes and major city ZIP codes. He has also memorized the maps in the front of telephone books and can tell you precisely how to get from oneUScity to another, and then how to get around in that city street by street. He also has calendar-calculating abilities. Recently rather advanced musical talent has surfaced. Of unique interest is his ability to read extremely rapidly, simultaneously scanning one page with the left eye, the other page with the right. An MRI of his brain showed absence of the corpus callosum (joins the left and right hemispheres of the brain) along with substantial other central nervous system damage (Treffert Np.).
The Savant Syndrome was first described by Dr. J. Langston Down in 1887, although he did not use that terminology when he wrote of 10 savants he had personally known; it has been written about consistently ever since. Dr. Down was in charge the Earlswood Asylum in England where people with what was then called idiocy and today would be called mental retardation were cared for. Autism would not be diagnosed for another fifty years. He is the person for whom the well known developmental disability Down Syndrome is named. He reported a man in his care who, after attending an opera only once, could return to the asylum and recall all of the arias and hum or sing them over and over perfectly, including with proper pitch (qtd. in Treffert Np.).
One of the most famous musical savants was a pianist who performed in the middle 1800’s. His name was Thomas Green Wiggins and he became know musically as “Blind Tom” (Treffert Np.). He played at the White House in 1849 at age 11. After the Civil War ended he traveled throughout the US and Europe performing in concerts for the important musicians of the time. He had a vocabulary of less than 100 words, but a musical repertoire of 5,000 selections. According to Dr. Treffert there are records preserved containing a statement from a panel of 16 outstanding musicians of the day who tested him in Philadelphia and who signed a statement with their conclusions about “Blind Tom”. They wrote “Whether in his improvisations of performances of compositions by Gottschalk, Verdi, and others; in fact, in every form of musical examination – and the experiments were too numerous to mention – he showed a capacity ranking him among the most wonderful phenomena in musical history” (qtd. in Treffert Np.).
In 1914 Dr. Alfred Treadgold wrote of a female patient in a French mental hospital who was born blind with mental retardation and had Ricketts (a vitamin C deficiency disease) who had great musical talent. He wrote:
Her voice was very correct and whenever she had sung or heard some piece she knew perfectly well the words and the music. As long as she lived they came to her to correct the mistakes in singing of her companions; they asked her to repeat a passage, which had gone wrong, which she always did admirably. One day, Geraldy, Liszt, and Meyerbeer came to the humble singing class of our asylum to bring her encouraging consolations. (qtd. Treffert Np.)
The Geraldy mentioned was Paul Geraldy (1885-1983) who was a French poet and playwright, Liszt was Franz Listzt the composer (1811-1886) and Meyerbeer was Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), German born composer who was the most famous and successful composer and producer of opera in the Europe of his time, although he is virtually unknown today.
Scientists do not fully understand Savant Syndrome although more research is being done on it now than ever before. According to Treffert (Np.) it appears that left hemisphere brain dysfunction, particularly in the temporal lobe areas, with the right hemisphere developing processes to compensate for the loss in the left hemisphere is an important part of the cause in many cases of savant syndrome, including those occurring in persons with autistic disorder (Treffert Np.). One theory of how that happens is that that the left side of the brain develops later than the right side and if there is more testosterone present than there should be during late term development of the fetus it causes damage to the underdeveloped and more at risk left hemisphere (Treffert Np.). Prodigious memory is present in every case of savant syndrome and is considered a basic characteristic of the syndrome. Barr characterized his patient with prodigious memory as “an exaggerated form of habit” (qtd. in Treffert Np.). This type of memory is a non-conscious “habit” formation rather than a “semantic” memory system (Treffert Np.). We have two kinds of memory processes which each use different circuits in the brain; semantic memory which happens in the cortex and limbic system and is a higher level cognitive process and the more primitive habit memory, which happens much deeper in the old brain. Savant memory is probably the latter and is restricted to a very narrow area in the habit memory area of the brain (Treffert Np.). Savant skills characteristically continue, during one’s life instead of disappearing. With continued use, they persist at the same level or actually increase. The person’s special skills often serve as an opportunity toward normalization with actual improvement in language acquisition, socialization, and daily living skills. When the area of special skill is music it has usually has been piano. Musical savant characteristics include perfect pitch, composing in the absence of performance and the ability to play multiple instruments, sometimes as many as twenty (Treffert Np). Other than prodigious memory and possibly perfect pitch, not all characteristics are present in every musical savant. Prodigious savant is a term reserved for those very rare individuals for whom the special skill is so outstanding that it would be spectacular even if it were to occur in a person without a disability (Treffert Np.). Treffert (Np.) estimates that there are probably fewer than 50 prodigious savants known to be living worldwide at the present time who would meet that very high threshold of savant ability.
Because of the length and complexity of this paper I am not going to attempt to summarize the aspects of the brain and how it functions in the process of learning, performing and appreciating music. Instead I want to review what I think are the most important things I gained by writing this paper beyond all the new information I learned. I have developed a profound respect for my brain. I had no idea that learning music, the thing I love most in life, was so biologically unique and complicated. As I contemplate teaching music to others as part of my career, I feel that I am much better prepared to undertake this responsibility because I now have at least a basic idea of what is going on in the brain of my student. I also feel like I answered the questions I started the project wanting to know. Hopefully, the understanding I have developed will make me better able to recognize learning difficulties in the students I teach and to celebrate the significance of their accomplishments. Understanding the process of learning music in the brain has increased my sense of awe about it all, and also has allowed me to be more patient with myself and hopefully with those I teach as I have a new awareness of just how demanding and mysterious mastering music really is. I look forward to developing the creativity and knowledge about teaching music that is required to inspire me to excel in teaching others, particularly those who may not find learning music an easy endeavor.