Music and Autism: Understanding the Role of Music in Everyday Life

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
D. M. Greenberg1,2, S. Baron-Cohen3 and P. J. Rentfrow4, (1)Department of Psychiatry, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (2)Clinical Psychology, City University of New York, New York, NY, (3)University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (4)Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Background:  In children and adults with autism, musical savantism occurs at elevated rates in autism. Indeed adults with autism perform better on some music performance tasks, including pitch perception. However, little is known about the role of music in their everyday life and why they engage and prefer music in unique ways.

Objectives:  To map the role of music in the everyday lives of adults with higher functioning autism. Specifically, (1) to gain a broad picture of the uses and effects of music in autism, and (2) to investigate the cognitive factors that underlie differences between autism and control groups on musical consumption, engagement, preferences, evoked emotions, and peak experiences.

Methods: A range of musical assessments were administered online to multiple autism and control groups. These included measures of musical importance and consumption (n = 156 in the autism group and 142 in the control group); music engagement (n = 152 and 146), musical preferences (n = 97 and 135), music use and evoked emotions (158 and 271) and peak experiences (n = 89 and 127). The Empathizing Quotient (EQ), Systemizing Quotient-Revised (SQ-R), and Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) were administered to subsets of all the samples.

Results: Adults with autism showed clear differences from controls in how they use and are affected by music in everyday life. The autism group scored higher on cognitive/intellectual engagement with music, and preferred music with more intense and complex features. They scored higher on using music to get through difficult times and to be relieved of worries. They also scored higher on feeling wonder, transcendence, and tension from music. And responses on peak experiences demonstrated that music with patterns and repetition facilitated strong and intense reactions to music. The individual differences found in musical behavior were in part underpinned by cognitive 'brain type' classifications (as assessed through the EQ and SQ-R) and scores on the AQ.

Conclusions:  This is one of the first comprehensive studies on music and everyday life in autism. The findings shed light on the link between autism and music and provide evidence for the cognitive factors that underlie this relationship by extending the empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory to music. The findings also have the potential to inform treatments in music therapy and clinical settings.