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Classical Music Through an Autistic Lens

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Classical Music Through an Autistic Lens
  April is Autism Acceptance Month, and what better way to celebrate than with a classical music listening party? I recently invited a few friends to the studio to listen to Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals with me. All four of us — Amanda, Kelly, Raul, and I — are autistic. Autism is a neurological, developmental condition that can result in distinctive patterns of sensory and cognitive processing. One way this plays out is how we process music.

Composer Camille Saint-Saens

We listened to Saint-Saens’ “Wild Donkeys” movement first. Raul found it thrilling but confusing, like his mind was going around in circles. Kelly found it funny and imagined “lots of millipedes and legs going really fast.” Amanda said it seemed unpredictable, as if something was firing off at all directions with no path. She pointed out that it gave her the same sensation as being in a room with everybody talking at the same time.

One of the hallmarks of autism is extreme hypersensitivity to sensory input. The opposite — hyposensitivity —lso also quite common. Thus, the experience of listening to music and perceiving sound is often much more intense for autistic people than it is for neurotypical people. For example, when I hear something that my brain registers as unpleasant, my body goes into fight or flight mode, or it causes a shutdown or meltdown. On the other hand, when I hear something pleasurable, it makes me feel really good, tingly even.

Like me, Kelly gets goosebumps when she listens to pleasurable music. She also cries, though she can’t put her finger on what causes the tears. Amanda gets an overwhelming urge to sing to pleasing music “open up [her] stomach,” and take deep breaths of air. Raul pictures himself dancing in his head or enjoying a fun experience like a carnival. He doesn’t do it often, unless alone, as he fears judgment and “being perceived as different.” Unlike Raul, Kelly doesn’t just picture herself dancing; she does dance and flap her hands in public, regardless of who’s watching. She cited doing this at grocery stores, both with and without her wheelchair. Kelly also described how she choreographs both dancing and animation in her head while listening to music. It’s a manifestation of synesthesia, something I experience as well.

We all really enjoyed listening to the “Aquarium” movement from Carnival of the Animals. It gave Kelly tingles and images of ice fairies. Raul felt like “good news was on the way.” Amanda felt a peaceful sinking and floating rhythm. But all of my friends had a hard time with the “Braying Donkeys” movement.

Kelly called it “high violin stabbing.” Raul said he did not like the “sharp violin sounds,” and they all groaned until it was over. It was their first time hearing the piece, and they weren’t sure how many more “stabs” were left. Amanda called it the “sound of a fluorescent light,” and everyone readily agreed. Fluorescent lights are a common pain point among autistic people. We talked about their incessant buzzing, sharpness, and the headaches they cause. I consider them super fast strobe lights. Raul’s forehead gets itchy when he’s around fluorescent lights.

At this point in the party, everyone was overstimulated. So we took a break from Saint-Saens and balanced it out with a piece by J.S. Bach, from the Goldberg Variations. Raul said this made him feel safe. Kelly felt comforted. Amanda called it “neutral music that wouldn’t scare you,” and they all felt that this would be better to listen to when stressed or overstimulated.

I asked if it was worth listening to new kinds of music, given that you don’t know if it’s going to make you want to dance or itch. Perhaps my friends would prefer to remain in a sonic safety bubble rather than taking risks on things like Carnival of the Animals?

They agreed that a mixture of “challenging” and “safe” was best. Kelly firmly stated that she likes to try new things. She said, “I think it makes my mind open up a little more every time I hear a new sound.”

Thanks to Kelly, Amanda, and Raul for joining me in this conversation. Now that you’ve heard what classical music can be like from an autistic perspective, how does it relate to your own experience? Let us know in the comment section below!

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Written by:
Chrysanthe Tan
Chrysanthe Tan
Published on 12.17.2019