Autism and Rhythm: Marching To a Different Drummer

In 2013, a paper on the relationship between timing, rhythm and autism was published in the journal “Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience”. The author, Pat Amos, is a mother of four children, with three being on the autistic spectrum. In the paper, Amos explored disruption in the neurological development of those diagnosed with autism and the consequences of this. She also looked for ways to manage autism and considered the positive effects rhythm and timing can have on these individuals.

So what challenges do those with autism face? Can an insight into the human relationship with time and rhythm really provide a workable solution?

A Different Drummer

When we consider the needs of people on the autistic spectrum, we might talk about them as ‘marching to a beat of a different drummer.’

This is because for an autistic person, emotions are harder to read, language development is delayed and even the task of taking part in a conversation is difficult. There is also the issue of repetitive thought or physical behaviour, such as hand tapping.

Controlling movement is challenging for a person with autism – as Amos describes in her paper, when remembering how her own son, when he was a child, would search his body for buttons to control his movements.

A person with autism might behave unusually to everyday situations too, such as a fire engine driving past at high speed. They are likely to display signs of discomfort, acting differently to a sibling whose neuro-development has been normal.

Externally, a person with autism may look ‘normal’, but under the surface, the internal wiring is very different. This can result in unusual actions and curious responses.

Rhythm in Communications

Even as babies we are aware of the power of timing and rhythm in communications with caregivers, such as siblings or parents.

As we grow up, we learn to recognise when to dip into conversation and what non-verbal signs of communication indicate we are listening. Caregivers of those with autism however, report that even from as young as twelve months, their children are hard to engage with and do not respond in the way you might expect a baby to respond. This continues throughout childhood and as the child enters the toddler stage, a lack of preverbal communication is also likely to be noticed.

Research carried out in the States on babies (who were later diagnosed with autism) attempting to crawl and roll over, were also seen to be lacking in superimposed movements, and an underdevelopment of motor skills.

But poor engagement and lack of motor skills aren’t the only challenges those with autism face. Synchronisation is another complicated area.

Out of Sync

If you’ve ever walked down the street and almost crashed into an oncoming person, only to perform the awkward ‘pavement dance’ of stepping to the left and right, you will recognise the importance of synchronisation.

How we time ourselves and predict the timings of others is a crucial player in building and maintaining relationships. Those with autism are often unable to recognise these social cues and other timings.

Studies carried out on individuals with autism have discovered that overstimulation over the five senses is a key contributor to the personality of autism. Not only will this cause distinct stress to the individual, but it will also cause concern for caregivers. Amos uses an example of a child who will silence the television and use subtitles on the screen, so as to reduce sensory overload to just a visual medium.

Watching a television show, where the audio and visual isn’t synced properly, will leave you feeling frustrated. Living with autism, is like watching that television show, on repeat for your waking life.

It can be overwhelming to consider the challenges those with autism face, in all areas of their lives. Not only are they slower to learn motor skills, they also find it difficult to connect with people on a mental and emotional level, constantly battling over-stimulation and distraction that we can simply filter out automatically.

Unpicking the internal wiring provides some clues to autism and how we might attempt to improve the lives of those living with it.

Bodily Rhythms

There are two systems operating in our bodies: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Both send information simultaneously through our body, in two-directional movements, with our bodies responding accordingly. These responses can be compromised through automatic responses such as fight or flight reflex or involuntary responses, such as dyspraxia or paralysis. For a person with autism, whose brainwaves may ‘veer into a chaotic state’, this can lead to seizures. Approximately eleven to thirty-nine percent of those with autism actually experience seizures. This can be frightening for the individual and of course their family and friends.

Autism can also affect a person’s circadian rhythm, which regulates our temperature and controls our sleeping patterns. Those who parent or teach children with autism have reported disrupted circadian rhythms, where children are unable to recognise when they are hungry or when they are tired. A change in seasons can disrupt a person with autism’s mood and personality, with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) often linked to those on the autistic spectrum.

Neurological studies on patients with and without autism have revealed that between some regions of the brain, those with autism show an increased pattern in communication, whereas in other areas, the patterns are decreased. These studies have also revealed that each person’s brain profile is uniquely synchronised, meaning that various brain profiles can fall under the umbrella term of ‘autism’.

The resting state of an autistic person’s brain, with under and over-connectivity patterns emerging, is vastly different to a non-autistic person. This will compromise behaviours and communications in social environments and also impair movement and synchronisation.

So what can be done to support those with autism?

Rebuilding Communication through Rhythm

Therapists are turning to the use of rhythm and timing to act as a support system to build communication between people with autism. Humans will intrinsically react to rhythm. But, although we are all receive rhythm in the same way, autistic individuals, with uniquely synchronised brain profiles, will process it very differently.

Rhythm-based sessions could hold the key to providing a safe and supported environment to those with autism. But it’s not just about hearing the rhythm. A particular pace of rhythm could be used to support the development of a particular movement or motor co-ordination.

Rhythm-based sessions, such as Unified Rhythm, can increase confidence in an individual with autism who is constantly over stimulated in our twenty-four hour, seven day a week existence. These carefully controlled environments, where all individuals are welcomed, not just those with neurological complications, provide a gateway to relief and a safe, non-judgemental environment.

At present, there is no scientific evidence to suggest rhythmic sessions provide any relief to those who partake. However, anecdotally, the results speak for themselves. Take the opportunity to see for yourself the positive effects it has on the participants. And if these people are returning, week after week, month after month, purely by choice, surely that is enough to convince that rhythm and timing can provide some benefit to those who need it most.


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