Language and Music: Auditory Processing

Posted: March 21st, 2009 under life on the spectrum, music, sensory processing.
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In another venue someone asked if anyone else’s child on the autism spectrum hated to hear their mother sing.

My answer was yes: when our son was pre-verbal, he didn’t much like singing at all (with the exception of a lullaby I’d made up for him early on) but he did like music…until the 18 months when he didn’t.   For about two years I was choir director for a very small church’s very small choir, and I could not have him in the church while we rehearsed–he’d scream the whole time.

Once he began to talk (a process that took years to achieve) he complained about singing.  He liked music–he liked to have me play the piano, and began playing himself very early–but singing, especially in groups, seemed almost to hurt him.   (His early ability on the piano, combined with being nonverbal, made us consider if he might be a musical savant.  Not many preschoolers will start playing along with very complex difficult classical music.)

Though he gradually came to accept some vocal music, with a single (very good) singer,  things changed again for an 18 month period.   Suddenly (as in, within one week) he could not stand any music at all, even music he had enjoyed before.   Music in the mall, music in a restaurant, music on the radio or TV–none of it.   His language  at this stage was what is called “right-brain”–the way people speak who have had damage to their left-brain auditory processor,  the main language center (Broca’s area.)  Stilted and downright peculiar syntax, little emotional expression, etc.    And music is processed (for most people) mostly in the right-brain auditory processor.  Were the two interfering when both words and music came in together?

I was watching the winter Olympics (in France that year) and ice dancing (or pair skating–I have trouble telling the difference);  a pair were skating to music I’ve known well since I was six.   The announcer was talking over the music; that didn’t bother me.   Then the phone rang.  I put the phone to my right ear, and a friend began a conversation…and instantly,  both the music and the announcer’s voice (which then were coming in my uncovered left ear)  became unintelligible, ugly, and even painful.   I could not understand what the announcer said; I could not hear the music as music–it turned into loud (louder than it had seemed before)  ugly, scary, horrible sounds that made no sense.

I knew instantly that I was experiencing what our son experienced.   No wonder he said “Loud dangerous music!” ….that’s exactly what it seemed like to me–an adult, not autistic, familiar with the music and easily able  to handle complex language.  What I didn’t know was that he was in the process of shifting from right-brain to left-brain language…his syntax was about to alter significantly and become more understandable.

In the next 12-18 months,  his verbal language improved in all areas: the amount he spoke, the way he spoke, the increasing expressiveness (exaggerated at first) of his speech, etc.   And gradually, his tolerance for music returned…first for piano, then for other instrumental, and finally (and permanently) for singing.

I suspect (we didn’t have serial PET scans done so we can’t be sure) that the previously nonfunctional or barely functional Broca’s area finally “connected” with the right auditory processor he’d been struggling with–and in the period where the two were competing over which would handle which sounds, music in general and vocal music in particular did in fact “collide” and create “loud dangerous music.”

In this same period, he quit playing the piano as much (and finally, at all)  and showed much more interest in language itself.    His last use of the piano was to express emotion (playing “dark brown notes” when he was unhappy, and “bright yellow notes” when he was happy…and he hasn’t touched the piano for several years.

Later we discovered another unusual factor: he has absolute pitch.  Amateur singers like me are not always pitch perfect (we tend to come at a pitch tangentially, arriving there–if we ever do–after a period of off-pitch “noise.”)   For a someone  with absolute pitch, someone singing just off (and therefore not matching the piano or other accompaniment) isn’t just mildly annoying–it’s painful.   (The piano needs tuning–so this may be another reason he’s lost interest in playing it.)

He loves music,  has a big CD collection and plays them a lot, loves going to concerts, including choral concerts,  will try to sing with the tenor section in the “sing-along Messiah” concerts we’ve gone to, now tries to sing hymns in church…but has no interest (apparently) in learning music or performing, though both of us sing in choirs.   He can discuss  the emotional tone of the music, and the quality of the performance….that absolute pitch is always there and though he’s learned to hold the critique for afterwards, he’s certainly noticing if someone sings  or plays off-pitch.


  • Comment by AnnMCN — March 23, 2009 @ 6:46 pm


    This makes so much sense. I haven’t heard about that dissonance between music and speech from people I know, but they might not have had the opportunity tho make the observation you did.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 23, 2009 @ 7:09 pm


    I’d never had that happen before, and it’s never happened again–the circumstances, I mean–so I don’t know if it would hit someone else that way.

    I did already know about lateralization of auditory processing, thanks to having an autistic kid and learning a lot of neurology as fast as I could cram it in. (Fortunately, had a biomedical background, though not in that, and also had a computer programming background, which helped a lot.) So when it happened to me, I was able to grasp *what* happened, and then connect to Michael’s reaction.

  • Comment by AnnMCN — March 24, 2009 @ 10:02 am


    I told a friend, who is a musician, about this post, and she got all excited — She has a voice student with autism, and this sheds light on some things she has noticed. I told her to come and comment.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 24, 2009 @ 10:05 am


    Oh, I hope she does! And has she read last summer’s NATURE series on music and science?

  • Comment by AnnMCN — March 24, 2009 @ 5:14 pm


    I do not know, but I’ve poked at her to comment. As far as left/right brain balance, I need the classical music station on while I’m doing my job as a bookkeeper, as if I must keep both sides busy, or the idle one goes and interrupts.

  • Comment by Indywind — March 25, 2009 @ 10:50 am


    I often experience a similar sensation, especially when a phone conversation competes with other distinguishable sound.

    I’d previously thought of it as an effect analogous to motion-sickness, only with incongruous auditory rather than kinetic input.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 25, 2009 @ 11:04 am


    Do you experience it more, or more intensely, when the other sound is speech? Or music? Or other? With the advent of imaging that can determine in real time which part of the brain is activated by what input, there’s somewhat better understanding of how sounds are processed, but it’s still a developing field. (And they don’t ask the questions I want answered…yet.)

  • Comment by sari — March 25, 2009 @ 11:41 pm


    Random thoughts on music, language and ASDs:

    Within the Aspergers community, some parents noted that their children learned through music what they could not learn through words. One woman created a series of social skills songs for her son (“…if you can see the hairs in my nose, you’re standing too close…”), including some which helped him cope with meltdown situations when he was too overloaded to heed verbal instructions. Too bad I can’t find the link; the videos of her son were amazing. Other children can sing, but not speak, conversations.

    Auditory processing disorders can affect people who are otherwise normal. A socially adept relative is hypersensitive to sound. As a baby, the lack of filters translated into hours of crying when outside sounds disrupted sleep. As an adult, certain types of sounds can induce the same sorts of paralyzing shutdowns experienced by autists. But, unlike most (or all) autists, this person does not deal with multiple processing disorders.

    Closely related individuals, even those who carry identical diagnoses of ASD/PDD, have idiosyncratic responses to music and language. In one instance, the child evidenced advanced verbal skills, adult-like fluency at 18 months, and extreme and painful hypersensitivity to sound, especially the sound of singing. As a teenager the child shifted from classical and new age music to hard rock, deemed ok because the singers have heavy, unintelligible accents. As long as the singer functioned as an instrument, life was good. Words and music could not be processed together. Timbre, pitch, and volume all had an effect. It was as if each aspect of sound was processed independently of the other instead of weaving them into a coherent whole.

    The child’s sib, OTOH, evidenced moderate speech and language delays coupled with extremely slow auditory processing. Though loud, unexpected noises were upsetting, singing was a non-issue, provided the music had well defined patterns and structure. Over time, taste shifted from classical to the formulaic pop music of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. The need for patterned predictability took precedence over sound.

    Both children sang with pitch at very young ages. Neither had perfect (absolute) pitch. Both studied piano, could easily pick out songs by ear, but neither could learn how to read music. Neither had any aptitude for the spoken aspect of foreign languages.

    Immediate relatives of autists often have processing issues, even if they don’t have autism. At my house, every member shares Elizabeth’s experience on a regular basis, and not just on the phone. We may have issues in the car, where road noise and music combine to create physically painful overtones or when one person’s music is painful to another. In stores, incessant music (is there a quiet store left in America?) hurts, especially when children cry or people speak. With fatigue and stress, our already malfunctioning sensory filters may cease to operate at all.

    Some of this may tie into synesthesia, a processing disorder where the senses become somewhat intertwined, especially if sound is the affected sense. I recently read *Born on a Blue Day* by Daniel Tammet, an autistic (AS) savant. When one sense evokes another without the individual’s consent, it becomes difficult to prioritize or regulate information. From experience, “seeing” music-—visuals superimposed on whatever is actually happening–can be quite disconcerting. Synesthesia is supposed to be rare, but I would expect that a little research would show that it is common within the autistic population.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 26, 2009 @ 9:58 pm


    This is fascinating–thanks for posting it.

    I’ve had visuals while listening to music–it’s rather like having a screen “up” and “in front” with the visuals doing their thing, and it doesn’t usually affect my vision–if I have something to do that requires visual focus, I can do that about as well as any other time, and even subdue the music-related visuals. Not all music evokes them–but some does reliably. When I was younger, it was more flashes of color, shimmering shapes, etc., but now–especially for orchestral music–it’s often more complex images, sometimes of places I’ve been. I think the first time it got that complex, it was a Bach organ toccata & fugue that suddenly hauled a particular valley in Colorado (that I hadn’t seen since I was seven) out of memory and put me there. Temperature, smell, sight, the whole thing. (And nobody was playing Bach on that mountainside in the early 1950s.)

  • Comment by sari — March 27, 2009 @ 7:22 am


    Remember the passage in Fantasia, where sounds morph into shifting shapes and colors? Bet that person had synesthesia.

    A friend sees songs as collages of color and texture. Different versions of the same song performed by the same group (e.g., studio and live) produce different but consistently reproducible visuals.

  • Comment by Kait — March 28, 2009 @ 6:57 am


    Here via Ann Mcn, who asked me to comment here. I read this article and I was very excited.

    I am a vocal coach, and one of my singing pupils has autism and cannot sing in English… she says it makes her queasy. But she can sing in any language she cannot -speak- (or understand). This could be why!

    As a side note, my eldest daughter (who isn’t autistic) when she was a baby, could be lulled to sleep by my voice, but only if I was humming, NOT using the words.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — March 28, 2009 @ 9:22 am


    Thank you for chiming in and for sharing that about your student.

    Thinking about the problems caused by “mixing” the streams of auditory processing for some autistic people…there are other signs that the sensory processing problems within a sense are compounded by problems with sensory integration.

    Our son had a lot of trouble learning to recognize facial expressions, and found them confusing when learning to understand nuances of speech. He preferred to wear a blindfold, was fascinated by it, in fact, and seemed to understand speech and speak a little better while wearing it.

  • Comment by Nikki — April 6, 2009 @ 11:13 am


    That just reminded me of a college concert I was just at yesterday. I don’t have perfect pitch but I do have a pretty good ear. It was honestly really painful to listen to…I hope I never have to do that again.

    That was really interesting to read though 🙂

  • Comment by Elizabeth — April 6, 2009 @ 12:23 pm


    I don’t have perfect pitch, but like you have a reasonably good ear. And yes, there are musical events now that I just dread. What’s even more worrisome is that when I’m singing in choir, and the person next to me is sharp or flat, I have the choice of making a dissonance or moving to their wrong tone. Once I was stuck between two people, one a little flat and the other a little sharp and could feel my vocal cords wavering, ‘wanting’ to blend with someone.

  • Comment by Bruce Shaw — April 12, 2009 @ 11:04 pm


    Get the piano tuned now! I have absolute pitch and am in the autistic spectrum (likely Aspergers), when I was his age, out of tune playing drove me insane.

    Worse, I originally tuned to an out-of-tune piano and had to re-tune to concert pitch.

  • Comment by Finny — June 24, 2010 @ 2:28 pm


    This reminds me of an experience I had while watching one of the extras on my M*A*S*H DVDs.

    I could watch the picture, with the actor who played BJ talking, or I could look away from the TV and actually understand what he was saying. I could not do both at the same time. It was either “watch the picture and have the words all garbled and making no sense” or “look at something else and have a chance of understanding the words”. (I say “a chance” because I’ve either got hearing issues or auditory processing issues…or both. We’re trying to get them dealt with, but not sure how to, what questions to ask, or where to ask them.)

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