Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. I recently saw an article posted on social media by a former guest (shout out to Dr. Clint Randles from Episode 44!). And this article had a really unique perspective on why music has a special power to develop emotion, recognition and expression and those with autism. And I thought, I need to have this author on the show to talk about this! I have her with me today. Joining me from Tampa, Florida is Dawn Mitchell White. Dawn is a doctoral candidate in music education at the University of South Florida. She is a music educator, researcher, conductor and bassoonist with a particular devotion to children with special needs. Before Dawn returned to school for her doctorate, she owned and operated a K through 12 School of the Arts for children with learning and developmental disabilities. Welcome to enhance life with music, Dawn.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:01:07] Hi. Glad to be here.
Mindy Peterson: [00:01:09] Dawn, the article you wrote that caught my attention so much was called Three Ways Music Educators Can Help Students with Autism Develop Their Emotions. I’ll include a link in the show notes for listeners to read it themselves. Can you start by explaining to us what the challenges generally are for those with autism when it comes to emotions, whether it’s experiencing them, recognizing them and other people or managing emotions or something else?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:01:38] Well, if all of the above actually it’s difficulty in recognizing their emotions for what they are difficulty and identifying them. Children with autism have difficulty identifying them in other people, too, and figuring out which emotion is happening when it’s happening. So they may struggle with managing their emotions or feel or appear to be out of control sometimes. But underneath all of that is a child with emotions that is waiting to connect just like everybody else.
Mindy Peterson: [00:02:12] The sentences that most jumped out at me in your article were musical emotions aren’t understood the same way as regular emotions. They don’t require complex facial expressions or a, quote, tone of voice which are particularly difficult for children with autism to recognize. Musical emotions are easier for children with autism spectrum disorder to grasp because they are less socially complex. Wow, I never thought about it like that before, but that totally makes sense. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:02:48] Yes, yes. This is one of the wonderful things about music. While music has its fascinating needs when it comes to emotions, it’s not as socially complex as the emotions we experience every day. So normally a child with autism has to sort through facial expressions and body postures and vocal inflections to try and figure out what a person is trying to convey to them emotionally. But with music, those factors are removed from the equation, so it makes it easier for the child to balance the emotions that are being conveyed. So the social simplicity of the music makes it easier for the child with autism to understand and emotionally react to infants.
Mindy Peterson: [00:03:31] Yeah, that totally makes sense. And as I’m thinking about this, I’m realizing those of us who are neurotypical see a big difference between in-person communication and communicating by text. And it’s precisely because in text we don’t have that emotion and that nuance and that body language or tone of voice. And I’m wondering, is it accurate to say that those with autism experience in-person communication in a very similar way to a text kind of devoid of any of that extraneous non linguistic communication that we usually depend on?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:04:08] Well, maybe. Maybe so. I mean, when we think about that, think about how often we miscommunicate things in text. Right. You know, we we get the signals all wrong and we can think somebody is being facetious to us when they’re just being very matter of fact. And that kind of thing happens all the time for children with autism. They misunderstand the cues. So, yeah, it’s very similar to the things that happen with text messages. So, yeah, that’s a very good example.
Mindy Peterson: [00:04:42] Ok, yeah. I mean it really for those of us who aren’t intimately familiar with autism and someone who’s who’s dealing with that, I think it really is helpful for me to think of it in that sense because I can immediately relate to. Oh yeah, it’s like texting. You know, there’s so much. For misunderstanding and miscommunication, I mean, that’s why we need emojis so, so much, and that’s an interesting point. Our emoji is helpful for those with autism.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:05:10] That is one of the strategies that is often used with children with autism, is to use facial recognition cards to try and help them learn how to use to understand and recognize facial emotions. And it takes time. It takes a long time to learn how facial expressions function for children with autism. So, yeah, those facial expressions are constantly being reinforced and trying to help them understand what they mean. But they are on cards, so they basically have their own emoji system that is set up for them. And now here we are in the modern era using emojis, which is something that they’ve been doing for children with autism for a long time.
Mindy Peterson: [00:05:55] Oh, interesting. I wonder if whoever came up with that over at Apple or wherever had experience with someone with autism. I wonder if there’s any roots of that in the genesis of emojis that be interesting to find out.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:06:09] Well, then they’re kidding.
Mindy Peterson: [00:06:11] Yeah. So. Well, that’s a great segue to my next question, which was what are some specific ways that this super power of music can be used by educators or parents to intentionally develop emotional skills and kids with autism? You mentioned having some emotion cards. Are those typically a drawing and illustrations similar to an emoji, or is it more like an actual photograph of somebody’s space with a showing an emotion?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:06:39] Well, it depends. Sometimes they are actual photographs, but the majority of the time they are more like emoji cards. So that’s something that that I was suggesting for parents and educators to do is that they could create a deck of these emotion, face cards and then play pieces of music to symbolize these emotions. They can coordinate the two and then that could help the child with autism learn with the different emotions are that are represented in the facial expressions. So that can help connect the two. And that’s such an important skill that needs to be learned by all children with autism because it’s universally one of the most difficult skills to master.
Mindy Peterson: [00:07:23] Sure. What are some other specific ways that educators or parents can use music in developing this emotional development with kids besides the emoji cards?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:07:35] One of the ways that music could be utilized to help develop emotional skills for kids with autism is you could help them by simplifying the music for them. So it’s not so overwhelming. So basically, you could break it down by element because there are eight musical elements. And if you break it down, say, into melody or pitch or rhythm or structure or break it down into the individual elements of music, and then you start out with one element. So you start out with pitches and you get the child used to say the instruments pitch on like the piano and you get them started just listening to pitches. And then gradually you add in like harmony and then you can create melodies with it and then have harmony with melodies and then start adding in rhythms. And gradually, as you’re adding in the layers and the texture is filled in, the child learns to appreciate whole music and it’s not so overwhelming. By doing that and doing it in layers, you see what the child can tolerate. And so it’s not so overwhelming for that child.
Mindy Peterson: [00:08:55] Sure. Well, and my understanding is that kids with autism are very sensitive to auditory stimulation and some have more sensitivity than others. So I imagine that could be really helpful for them. And that’s one reason why children with autism, many of them are musical savants and they’re incredibly talented musically. And also evidence suggests that children with autism may enjoy music and music education from an earlier age than neurotypical students. So autism has some amazing superpowers of its own that come with it. There’s definitely challenges, but also some some benefits, too. I read somewhere that educators can use music to help a child with autism. Recall important information when the information is linked to the musical. Sounds like melody or rhythm. Can you talk to us about that?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:09:51] Yes, absolutely. When it is connected together, when you link information to a specific set. Or to a rhythm, the amount of recall goes up exponentially, so, for instance, having language cards, when you’re trying to teach a child who’s nonverbal and you’re trying to teach them how to speak for you’re trying to teach them vocabulary by linking that to music, by linking it to a rhythm, you can help that child to learn that vocabulary skill much quicker.
Mindy Peterson: [00:10:29] Ok, and do vocabulary and language skills tend to be another challenge for kids with autism?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:10:35] Absolutely. Yes.
Mindy Peterson: [00:10:37] Well, I can see how these two things, the emotion development and the vocabulary or linguistic development really could go hand in hand in both of them really impacts social life so much. I mean, when I think about the social lives of humans, it’s pretty easy for us to socialize with other people who are different than us when it comes to mental abilities and physical abilities. But if we’re unable to connect on an emotional level and we’re unable to verbally communicate, boy, that really throws a wrench into our ability to socialize, doesn’t it?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:11:14] Yes, it does. It does. Well, you know, if a child has typical emotional development, they still go through all the developmental phases where they’re learning about how emotions are interpreted and they are learning how to function in society and they’re learning how to interact with other people. But they continue to grow exponentially as a pattern of skills are developed and assimilated. However, with children with autism, they don’t automatically grasp emotional and social skills. So each of these need to be taught in a systematic way until the child understands what they’re feeling. And some children with autism, it takes them extended periods to learn about controlling emotions. And it makes social interaction really difficult for them. And that can lead to loneliness and isolation. But it doesn’t have to end that way. And I truly believe that there is a social network for each person, including persons with autism. So one part of the process begins with learning to understand and cope with feelings. And my hope is that musical experiences can play some part in helping with that.
Mindy Peterson: [00:12:19] Well, I remember from one of our emails you had said, I’m hopeful that our time together will help create a better musical environment for children with autism in the long run. And I thought that completely captures the spirit of our conversation today. And I do hope that this conversation is inspiring to parents and educators and how they can utilize the super power of music to really help kids with autism, recognize emotions and express emotions and develop empathy for other people’s emotions. Can you give us any examples of when you’ve seen this happen where music has enabled a child to recognize and express emotion or respond to emotion or manage emotion?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:13:04] When my oldest son was about seven, he all three of my sons, I have three adult sons now that are high functioning autistic. And when my oldest son was about seven, he was really struggling to express his emotions, especially when he was feeling upset and he got really connected with Mars, the bringer of war from the planets by host.
Mindy Peterson: [00:13:30] I have no idea what that is.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:13:35] Well, it’s a really intense piece of music. Oh, yeah. It’s like de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de de oh.
Mindy Peterson: [00:13:46] I thought you were talking about some kind of a videogame or superhero comic thing.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:13:52] I know it’s a piece of classical music and it’s just like, totally intense. OK. Yeah. And it helped him to express those feelings when he was upset. And I would see him playing that piece of music and looking upset. And I knew he needed help. You know, I think he would put on that piece of music so I could respond to him. And it became like this kind of cue between us. So when I heard that piece of music in the house, I knew I knew immediately he was upset and I would go to his side.
Mindy Peterson: [00:14:28] Well, and what a great way for him to be able to express that and ask for help rather than I mean, if somebody was feeling that way, other options would be becoming destructive and slamming doors and breaking things, you know, and what a healthy way to learn how to express that and ask for help.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:14:44] Absolutely. Absolutely.
Mindy Peterson: [00:14:46] Well, you probably have a lot of examples just from your own parenting experience. Can you give us another one with a different emotion, either from your parents experience or your experience with the school that you operated?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:14:59] Sure, yeah, one of my students, she was non-verbal. That means she couldn’t talk, but she was really her face told a lot about the emotions she was feeling and she would hum she would hum different melodies. And you could always tell what emotion she was feeling by the melody. She would hum. We were a school of the arts for children with special needs, with learning and developmental disabilities. So she had picked up different melodies from the pieces of music that we performed at the school and by the melodies that we would hear her humming. We could tell what emotion she was feeling. You’d see it on her face and you would hear the melody and you could look in her eyes and her eyes and the melody were telling the story that she couldn’t verbally say,
Mindy Peterson: [00:15:55] Wow,
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:15:56] Wow. Yeah. This is really powerful.
Mindy Peterson: [00:15:59] Yeah, that is powerful. You’re I think it was in your article said that studies show that children with autism can understand both simple and complex emotions in music. And when I think of simple emotions, I think of the Pixar movie Inside Out, or they have the different characters for joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust were the ones that they had, but complex emotions, too. I mean, we’re talking about things like embarrassment and pride, shame that’s so powerful for kids to have ways to express those in a nonverbal way. So it’s really exciting what you’re doing with music and just shining the spotlight on the super power that music has. Are there any resources that you recommend for parents and teachers who want to dig deeper into this topic of emotional development and social language development through music? I mean, I’ll definitely have that link to your article. And actually in your article, you have several links within that article. So that will be really helpful to give people a jumping off point. Any other resources that you want to recommend to listeners?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:17:09] Yes, I definitely recognize the Autism Society of Florida. They’ve been very helpful to my family over the years. And the Center for Autism Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida has been very helpful to my family over the years as far as resources I had recommended in my article, the Khan Academy Orchestral Unit, it’s such a wonderful experience for children to interact with the instruments of the orchestra. Well, they don’t interact, but they they get to experience them and see what each of these instruments are like and to experience what the the power of the orchestra is like. It’s a really wonderful experience. And then there’s some online opportunities for learning to play musical instruments as well. There is musician and Flo Key where children can learn to play musical instruments for kids for actually learning to play the piano. And this is for online and these are interactive. Awesome.
Mindy Peterson: [00:18:14] I’ll have links to those in the show notes. One other real quick question. Have you seen music utilized this way for emotional development in adults with autism?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:18:22] I haven’t seen anyone else do it, but I have to say, although I’ve not seen that subject studied in depth, I am living at home with three adults with autism and they connect emotionally and have done so throughout their lives. So now they’ve grown into adulthood. I’m living it. And, you know, I’m I’m sure that part of the reason I can identify the emotions taking place here is because I’m their mom, but they hum certain pieces of music depending on the mood that they’re feeling. And they also are musicians, too. I mean, I’m a musician, I’m a bassoonist. And my oldest learned to play the bassoon and then I have twins and one of them plays the French horn and the other one plays the baritone. And so they play pieces of music that is consistent with the emotions that they’re trying to convey sometimes, you know. So it makes a whole lot of sense and a whole lot easier for me to sort out what’s happening inside them and give them counseling based on the music I hear emanating from them. You know what I mean?
Mindy Peterson: [00:19:28] Yeah. No. Are your son’s musicians by trade, like is that part of their job or is this something that they do as amateurs for expression, for enjoyment?
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:19:38] It’s something they do just because they enjoy it.
Mindy Peterson: [00:19:42] Well, that sort of leads us right into our code. I ask all of my guests to close out our conversation with a coda, a musical ending, and you have a song that you’re going to share with us that involves your sons. Tell us about the song that we’re going to hear.
Dawn Mitchell White: [00:19:56] Well, my sons and I recorded a song. Today is entitled “Dona Nobis Pacem”, which means bring us peace. After all the years that I spent making music with my sons, whether it was on their instruments or with their voices. This has become one of our family favorites and we wanted to share this together with you and the audience because it’s it’s something that’s really special to our family. This piece is emotionally soothing for us and it’s come to symbolize love and togetherness as a family. I hope that you really enjoy it. It’s very special for us.