Thursday, June 11, 2015

Music is My Boyfriend, My Girlfriend, and Autistically Powerful

I have almost 13,000 songs in my iTunes library.

You read that right. 13,000 songs.

You're probably wondering who the hell could listen to that much music in one lifetime. Well, I can. Or at least I can listen to my playlist of favorite songs over and over again. That playlist has over 2,000 songs and grows by the day. Put it on shuffle and I could always hear something different over five and a half days and not get bored. I constantly search for the newest and most interesting stuff and make playlists upon playlists of my findings. It pumps me up when I need encouragement and calms me down in times of trouble. And from the Walkman to the gift from the gods known as the iPod, I've never gone anywhere my music to listen to.

It's common for autistic people to have an incredible amount of passion in their favorite subjects to the point of developing expertise in them. This is known as having a "special interest", leading to autistic people being called "little professors". Like all things considering autism, it isn't universal across the spectrum but I've seen it more than enough times to understand how people come to that conclusion. I've got a plethora of these "special interests", and while I wouldn't call myself a genius in any of them I certainly keep up with them a bit more than your average bear.

But music isn't what I'd call a special interest of mine. I'm not a musician, although I have played piano and clarinet in the past. Music just helps me understand life and the world as we know it.

It sounds cliche, but music speaks to me in ways I'm not entirely sure it does to others. Like musicians, autistics perceive the world in different ways and experience sensations on a more sensitive level. This hypersensitivity can manifest itself in severe rejection of certain materials or tastes, or being able to visually picture things others might not think of. Think of it as connecting complex patterns on rugs or this clip from Fantasia putting visuals to the sounds of different instruments. I can always pick out a song in a crowded room and often know exactly what it is. I can pick out and appreciate any music's instrumental from an acoustic guitar to busy electronica. And I always create complex imagery accompanying everything I listen to, often with me as the star.

And yet, I would say playing music and autism are very similar because they can unlock new perspectives of the world. Much is made of how music listening and music making activates whole brain engagement and affects every activity one engages in. And in learning to play music, musicians are better able to store and recall memories from a variety of sources. This is not unlike my own brain, where seeing a picture of a pigeon makes me recall every terrifying incident I've had with a bird. Temple Grandin calls this phenomenon "thinking in pictures" and musician Jonathan Chase can attest to that as both a musician and as an autistic person. The level of detail musicians have to perfect is also common in autism, as the world presents lots of individual challenges that all seem impossible to deal with. But like a dedicated musician, careful and repeated study is how this autistic girl has learned to adapt to her surroundings. And all along the way, music remains my constant friend and never an enemy.

I can't imagine my life without music. It's helped me adapt and understand the world, and I am forever grateful for it.

Here's some videos about music and autism:

1 comment:

  1. I have never learned to read, write, or perform music (even though I teach at a school for the musically-gifted, ironically), but I have a memory and affinity for it that is, like in your case, ridiculously extensive. I have an incredibly detailed long-term memory, but memories in my mind are often associated with music. A particular memory, for me, will be attached to a song, such that thinking about the past often conjures up "background music" in my mind at the same time. And, when I load tons of songs into my iTunes library, I am often documenting past times, places, events, people, general feelings about life, etc. If I were in a "Name That Tune" competition involving pop music from the 1960's through the early 90's, I would probably win the big prize, as I can name most songs from those decades after only a couple of notes. Apart from memory connection, music has also served for me as a way of expressing - putting into words - thoughts or feelings that I myself have an especially hard time defining and articulating.