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The Music of Autism

Marina Sarris
July 2, 2015

Photo of piano keyboardWhen their child is diagnosed with autism, parents may be told by well-meaning people about all the things that may be harder for their child to accomplish. Rarely do they hear about the things that their child will do as well as everyone else – or perhaps better.

Music may be one of those things. People with autism often have an understanding and enjoyment of music that is no different from anyone else's. And they are more likely to be superior in one musical area: discriminating between tones.

Research suggests that people with autism are more likely than the general population to have the rare gift of perfect pitch, or at least some version of it. Perfect pitch is the "ability to instantly and effortlessly identify the pitch of a tone without the use of a reference tone.”1 Perfect or absolute pitch is believed to be more common in people with early musical training and to run in families.

Some parents say their child with autism was drawn to music and musical instruments at an early age. School music programs, lessons or music therapy helped reveal a talent that is equal to, or better than, that of typically-developing children, they report.

Singing or playing an instrument can have other benefits for a child with autism. One mother recalled how her typically-developing daughter came home from school with a new appreciation of a classmate with autism after the girl played piano at a school talent show. This musician, who did not speak as often or as fluidly as her peers, communicated powerfully and artfully with the piano. We may tell our children not to make assumptions or judgments about people based on their apparent disabilities, but sadly, they sometimes do. When this young pianist performed, she shattered those classmates' expectations

Henny Kupferstein did not find music until adulthood, around the same time she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Ms. Kupferstein, who has perfect pitch, began playing the piano by ear. She studied at the State University of New York, where she learned to read music. With that knowledge, she began composing her own music. The ability to express herself through music was transformative, she said in an interview. "I was finally given the gift of language to express all the sound that had been in my head all those years. The next chapter of my life had opened up."

Learn more. See our article, Perfect Pitch: Autism's Rare Gift.

Do you suspect that you or your child with autism have perfect pitch?

  1. Drayna, D.T. (2007) Absolute pitch: A special group of ears. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104 (37):14549-50. Article.