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Cognition and behavior: Pitch perception heightened in autism

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Jessica Wright
11 January 2013

Animal song: Children with autism are adept at remembering which animal prefers a certain melody. They're also better than controls at hearing a 25-cent difference in pitch (click below to listen).

Children with autism are better than controls at remembering melodies and detecting differences in pitch, according to a study published 13 November in Autism1.

People with autism may have trouble perceiving emotion, but they do have an emotional response to music — even if they can’t express it, according to some studies.

They may also have better pitch perception than controls do. According to one parent-report study, people with autism are about 500 times more likely than the general population to have absolute pitch — a savant-like skill that allows an individual to classify pitch completely out of context.

This affinity with music suggests that music could be incorporated into autism therapies, the researchers say. 

In the new study, researchers looked at pitch perception in 25 children with autism and 25 typically developing children between 7 and 13 years of age. Two children in each group had played piano or had been in a band.

The children listened to pairs of single notes that were either identical or differed by 25, 35 or 45 cents — a measure of pitch. (There are 1,200 cents in an octave.) The children also listened to short melodies in which a note of the second bar occasionally varied in pitch.

Overall, children with autism are better able than controls to detect differences in pitch, the study found. These differences are statistically significant for 45-cent variations in single notes and for the 25- and 35-cent differences in melodies.

Children with autism are better than controls at detecting pitch in melodies than in single notes, suggesting an enhanced ability to detect patterns, the researchers say. Studies have shown a similar skill with visual patterns in people with the disorder.

The children also played a computer game designed to help them memorize which of four animals prefers one of four melodies, each in a different key. One week later, the children listened to these melodies again and tried to identify the associated animal.

Children with autism are better than controls at remembering the melodies, the study found. What’s more, eight children with autism, but only two controls, correctly identified at least 15 of the 16 melodies. One 8-year-old boy with autism who was fidgety and appeared not to be paying attention had a perfect score, the researchers note.

Of the 25 children with autism, 14 have an aversion to loud sounds, according to their parents. These children do not have better pitch perception than the other children with the disorder, the study found.

References:

1: Stanutz S. et al. Autism Epub ahead of print (2012) PubMed

Comments

Name: Lara Lohne
11 January 2013 - 7:01PM

My son has always had an affinity for music. When he was just 3 years old, and having an occupational therapist work with him at his spec ed pre school and make occasional home visits also, they noticed that, he can almost sense pitch and suggested this indicates an aptitude for music, obviously, but also for math. He received a toy guitar toy for Christmas. It isn't a real guitar, no strings on it, but there is a little one octave keyboard on the neck and he regularly will key out a melody, but hum it before hand, almost as though he's making sure the keyboard is in tune, even though it's electronic and a toy. I'd love to get him into some kind of musical therapy, even music lessons and learn music theory and all that, but he's only 5 years old and they don't have anything that like at his school yet and I can't afford therapy or private lessons, so I'll have to just wait and do what I can for him at home.

Name: Deborah Sale Butler
11 January 2013 - 7:53PM

If you have a computer at home, there are some wonderful music programs online. Check with local universities and colleges. Some have music therapy programs and you can sign your son up as a participant.

Name: Gerald Bothe
15 January 2013 - 4:13PM

The next step is a cheap keyboard, like Casio or Panasonic sell them, cost about $50. Then look whether he continues playing and trying out music by himself. And if he does, take a deep breath and try to find money for lessons (and for a piano) - family? community? church?

Name: Brenda Iacocca
7 February 2013 - 10:48PM

You might look into Music Together classes. The curriculum has been researched and developed to accept and include children with special needs. There is even a Music Therapist on staff at Music Together. Go to www.musictogether.com to fnd classes near you. Teachers are trained to assist your child in developing pitch and rhythm skills while attending a fun, famiy friendly class with parents or caregivers! Best wishes!
Breneda Iacocca Carmel, IN

Name: Anna
16 January 2013 - 6:09AM

I have asperger's and I am gifted when it comes to pitch. There was one test on the internet a while back that goes off of relative pitch-- it plays a reference note and plays a frequency following that and you have to tell it whether it was higher or lower. it starts off with wide interval gaps then gets smaller until you're dealing with frequency differences much smaller than quarter tones. I think I got a score that was in the top 0.3 percentile. I can't even tell you where my love of music begins. From the start, my grandma had one of those cheap 2 1/2 octave keyboards, which I would regularly shove my 3 sisters off of because I loved playing on it. Then she found an old electric organ. Again, I would shove my sisters off of it. I remember it was only a couple of octaves big and you could tilt in switches that would play different chords, and I remember one of the first songs I learned to play on it was America the beautiful. I also remember that every time it was plugged in and fired up that it smelled like hot bacon grease because my eldest sis accidentally spilled it in the thing (hey, they say fhat we do have good memories, right?). When I was 6, I wanted to learn how to read music and my grandma taught me. It came easy to me and my reading and math skills had a discernible jump around that point. Around age 9 I was able to tap out most melodies by ear upon request. When I was 10 on up I learned to play the violin. This is the instrument to this day I am most proficient in. At 12 I started writing music. Then people started saying weird things to me like asking if I have perfect pitch. Sometimes I think I do, but only if I am 100% practiced focused and well rested and wide awake. Everything sounds quite distorted when i'm tired though, which I really wonder what that means (that would also be in line with the kids above tha the parents said were sensitive to loud noises). Literally, when i am in sound overload, all of the sounds smear together like a terrible emotional slow mo scene in a movie. Also too when I'm tired I get more sensory overload issues with getting overstimulated and everything sounding louder than it normally does and it has this echo quality to it that I hate.. To me sound must sound differently, people never tell me how they hear if a note is in tune but to me an out of tune note just sounds distinct from a note that is in tune. Flat notes have this plunky sound to me-- akin to a old string that is a lower string (like a violin G or a guitar low E string) that when it's worn out its welcome becomes loose on the instrument and has a boingy sound to it, even if it's tuned to pitch. Like when the flat note is strummed it falls off in pitch ever so slightly as the waves in vibration go by. A sharp note has kind of a bent sound to it like it like it continues to go up in pitch as it's ringing. A note that is truly in tune continues to ring for a long time in the form of a sin wave so I am told. It would keep going on forever as long as it's never stopped, even if only the smallest of insect ears can hear it. And too, I discern a lot of the common open string notes/white keys differently in sound than sharps/flats/black keys. It could be in something called the overtone series. I don't know what is a normal range of hearing for many people but I do hear things particularly well too, especially on the upper end. This is why I find loud noises much worse when they are higher pitched- which makes things interesting between my father and i since He is hard of hearing and most of his loss is on the upper end. And despite being 28, I still hear that stupid mosquito ringtone quite well. Especially when some people's phones don't get the frequency right and it ends up being played at some cockadoodle oddball uneven frequency (especially after being compressed in some way) it just makes it so much more annoying. At this point I am just rambling, I know. But, if my input gives ideas and input to people as one of these people, then go for it.

Name: Brenda Iacocca
7 February 2013 - 10:55PM

Fascinating Anna! As a music educator specializing in early childhood music and development via the Music Together program, I so appreciate you sharing your insights on pitch! It makes a lot of sense to me since I have taught children of all ages and abilities. I love your descriptions of how the pitch gets fuzzy when you are tired! I also was fascinated by your description of flat, sharp and perfect pitch qualities! This helps me understand how certain pitch frequencies may be annoying to children with autism, aspergers & other related sound sensativities, etc. I hope I can use this knowledge to be a better music teacher! Thanks again!
Brenda Iacocca
www.preschoolmusicplus.com

Name: Jeffrey
20 November 2013 - 2:47PM

Wow Anna, I am the exact same way. Diagnosed Asperger's, have perfect pitch, started with toy keyboards age 3, then moved to a string instrument, then back to a real piano. All skills have been acquired autodidactically by using my good ear for notes. I'm 26 now and I write music. I also have some weird forms of synesthesia. You just described all of that better than I've ever been able to. Glad there's someone out there who can relate. If you ever see this comment and feel like talking about all of that stuff, drop me a line: fountainpenink(at)gmail.com.

Name: Anna
16 January 2013 - 6:22AM

Forgot to mention, getting a keyboard for your music special interest ASD kid is awesome. My favorite Christmas present as a child was a 49 key Casio keyboard when I was 10. I loved that thing to death and played many a song on it. Was never quite the same sounding after my younger sister leaned over, tossed herself over the top bunk bed and threw up all over it though when we were teenagers but it's recovered enough that I still have it (it kinda has a buzzing rattling quality to the sound after that incident but it still works just fine otherwise). We still joke about the incident to this day but you know at the time I was obviously upset about.

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