Connecting with people with autism through music and the arts

While reading the chapter An Anthropologist on Mars in the book of the same name by Oliver Sacks this week, I started thinking about how museums are engaging people with autism and how they might go even further in the future.

I have heard of some museums that seem to be doing great things for children with autism (such as the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum), but I wondered if museums or other arts organizations have done any performing arts programming for people with autism.

Temple Grandin (professor, author, autistic activist, and engineer), in Sacks’s book, describes how she has absolute pitch (a.k.a. perfect pitch, something some musicians and  non-musicians alike possess, though it seems to be relatively common in people with autism) and a “precise and tenacious musical memory, but, on the whole, music fails to move her.”  [1]  She is a visual thinker and has found her passions in arenas other than music, but she still has some musical abilities that even professional musicians do not possess.

There has been a good amount of research done on music therapy with children with autism, and it seems as though there is a positive connection between the two.  According to a 2004 study, “the body of literature regarding music in intervention with children and adolescents with autism reports the following benefits:

-increased appropriate social behaviors and decreased inappropriate, stereotypical, and self-stimulatory behaviors;

-increased attention to task;

-increased vocalizations, verbalizations, gestures, and vocabulary comprehension;

-increased echolalia [the automatic repetition of vocalizations made by another person], moving toward increased communication, and decreased echolalic percentage of total utterances;

-increased communicative acts and engagement with others;

-enhanced body awareness and coordination;

-improved self-care skills and symbolic play;

-anxiety reduction [2]


Some museums and arts organizations are beginning to engage audiences with autism through music and other arts.  The Autism Theatre Initiative strives “to make theatre accessible to children and adults on the autism spectrum as well as their families.” [3]  They have been involved with autism-friendly productions of The Lion King and Mary Poppins, and this season will reprise The Lion King and add Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Wicked, and Disney Junior Live on Tour! Pirate & Princess Adventure to its repertoire.

In addition, Queens Museum hosts Spinnerz, “a club for teens with autism to encourage socialization through music and photography.” [4] 

It sometimes seems that museums can be slow to incorporate the needs of different audiences within their exhibitions and programming, but if museums are focusing on their communities, as they should, perhaps even more opportunities will come to fruition in the future and can cater to the needs, interests, and talents of everyone.



[1] Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 286.

[2] Jennifer Whipple, “Music in Intervention for Children and Adolescents with Autism: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Music Therapy 41, issue 2 (2004): 101-102.

[3] “Autism Theatre Initiative,” TDF/TAP Autism Theatre Initiative, accessed April 23, 2014,

[4] “ArtAccess,” Queens Museum, accessed April 23, 2014,

15 thoughts on “Connecting with people with autism through music and the arts

  1. Thank you for your post, Megan. I did not know that there was such a positive connection between children with autism and music. I think, as you point out, that because museums already specialize in forms of non-traditional education that it only makes sense that they should embrace music and art therapy as a perfect way to connect their missions to all groups in their community.

    1. I am in the same boat as Britney as I did not know of all the benefits music offered to those with Autism. I was curious after reading your post and it seems that music also has a positive effect on those with Down Syndrom ( and ADHD ( I am sure there are also many more studies showing the benefits of music, not only to those with mental disabilities but also those without. I agree with both you and Britney that museums should find a way to tie music and arts based programming to their mission in order best serve the entirety of their communities.

      1. As I was reading the blog post and the comments, I kept thinking back to the program last semester for the children with Autism and their families. During the “jam session,” the children really seemed to come alive. And let’s not forget the little boy, who was also non-verbal, hugging the mandolin on his way out. Music has the special capacity to reach out and touch people. I think it can be used as a natural and engaging component in museum programs.

      2. Thank you Megan for the post, and Michelle as well for the articles. I had been thinking about the visual component of engaging visitors with autism since Temple Grandin discussed her focus on sight. However, as she states in her Ted talk (which was brought up on Kahla’s post), people with autism have different ways of processing information, and many people learn better through sound. Museums can provide an engaging learning experience for various visitors who do not fit into the general k-12 educational model. I like the way that Michelle broadened this discussion by thinking about visitors with Down Syndrome and ADHD, since I think museums do not always focus on these visitors.

      3. Kahla, I like how you mentioned the connection between the little boy and the mandolin. I think this is a great way to demonstrate that music can be much more than sounds. The mandolin is an object with physical permanence. The sound it made was temporary–it lasted only as long as people could hear it. So, when it comes to music–a medium of sound–it’s important to remember that objects and events (think of the Greg’s memories of the Grateful Dead that go beyond the group’s music in “The Last Hippie”) can be just as important as the sounds. The social nature and camaraderie found at a concert or festival can be crucial for establishing bonds with others.

  2. This was a great read and it got me thinking. Temple Grandin suggested that people with autism simply had a different way of thinking and perceiving the world around them. But they engage with music and have positive responses to it. Does this mean music is a bridge to help different thinking processes learn?

    1. The power of music is incredible. Thank you for sharing Megan. To answer your question Stephenie, I think yes, music can be a bridge to help different thinking processes learn. What comes to mind is the story about the Lost Hippie, who couldn’t remember much and was able to use music to remember different things such as the date. Generally, all people have a positive response to music, so why not take advantage of that and use music to inspire learning.

    2. I wonder if the way people with autism experience music is the same as those who are not autistic and if not what is it like? I what really struck me about that chapter was Grandin’s question “How do you think?” She knows how she thinks and she knows that other people are different but how do you reconcile those? I completely understand her question and wonder how it applies to music. How do people experience music and if it different how is it that people show their appreciation and experience of music similarly?

    3. I think this is more the case with some people than others. The creator of the Autism in the Museum website observed that we normally associate autism with mathematical aptitude, but her autistic son is more inclined towards the arts. Granted, music can easily apply to both math and art, but it just goes to show that autistic people have a range of strengths like everyone else. I’m not sure if there’s even one manner in which autistic people tend to think.

    4. Stephenie, I don’t know whether music is a universal bridge, but I think it can serve as one. I was reminded on Kahla’s talk in class the other day. She explained the theory about different styles of learning. One difficulty schools have is that their style suits one kind of learner primarily. Teachers are working on incorporating more music and videos, for example, because reading and lectures may not be the best way for every student to learn material and concepts. In that light, it seems that we all learn and understand the world in different ways.

  3. During the program Kahla was talking about, we had the guests create musical instruments from household items. The visitors really enjoyed making the instruments and then playing them together. We also had a historic cooking demonstration. The visitors LOVED cooking and many of them were much more apt in the kitchen than me!

  4. After reading all the comments and your blog post, it seems to me that museums and other cultural institutions are realizing that there are different ways to learn and to teach. Its great to see what kinds of programming is being down to reach out to people with mental illness, to get them to learn and engage with the museum. I think programs such as the ones you are mentioning are tearing own the restrictions and attitudes that people often associate with mental illness.

  5. There seem to be a lot of great examples of museums using music and the arts to connect with diverse audiences! This makes me wonder as well how it can be applied to the school system. Are music classes and performances a way to connect students in the “standard” classes with those in special ed classes? I worked with a bluegrass education program in SC called YAM (Young Appalachian Musicians) that served as an after school program in some areas. Lessons were communal and the cost for fees was determined by what students paid for lunch (free, reduced, etc.). It seems that programs like this could also be a bridge and museums are great places to house them or be involved in some way.

    1. That’s a really great program, Emily! It reminds me of my introduction to jazz music- I had just started middle school, and Wynton Marsalis came to play in Richmond. Seeing him play made me instantly fall in love with the trumpet, and I played it all through middle and high school. I wonder how museums could implement that kind of program. There’s got a be a grant out there that would fund the purchase of loaner instruments and a monthly program with a local musician. That’s one to keep in the memory bank as we go out into the real world.

  6. Thanks Megan for addressing this. I thought on this a lot after reading this week, and what struck me most was Grandin’s lack of connection to music, rather than her absolute pitch. Music is, in essence, logical and mathematical. It’s a system that can be studied and analyzed within limits. Yet like many emotions, this mysterious “X” factor of beauty and the human soul music provides seemed to elude Grandin. Is this universal trait for people on the spectrum? I have worked with people with autism in the past who react to music instantly, seemingly on a deep and thoughtful level. Just as Caitlin commented, is the experience the same, or is it just an auditory response?

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