Ep. 100: How music can help students with autism develop their emotions, with Dawn Mitchell White

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Dawn Mitchell White says, “Musical emotions aren’t understood the same way as regular emotions. They don’t require complex facial expressions or a ‘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.” Dawn unpacks music’s superpower in developing emotion recognition, management, and expression in those with autism spectrum disorder.

Dawn Mitchell White


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 returning to school for her doctorate, Dawn owned and operated a K-12 school of the arts for children with learning and developmental disabilities.


We discuss:

  • What the challenges generally are for those with autism when it comes to emotions – experiencing them, recognizing them in other people, and managing them.
  • Those of us who are neuro-typical see a big divide between in-person communication and communication by text, and it’s precisely because there is no emotion or nuance or body language or tone of voice in texts. We discuss the similarities with how those with autism may experience in-person communication, devoid of any of that non-linguistic communication.
  • Studies show that children with autism can understand both simple and complex emotions in music.
  • Specific ways music can be utilized (by educators and/or parents) to intentionally develop emotional skills in kids with autism, including:
    • Use emotional labels, sing with vocabulary cards to teach language skills.
    • Simplify music by isolating musical elements (pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, structure, texture and expression).
    • Link music with information to help a child with autism recall information.
  • The implications of emotion development (or lack thereof) on a child’s social life.
  • Recommended resources for parents and teachers who want to dig deeper into this topic of emotional development (and social and language development) through music.

Connect/Other Resources

In-Episode Promo

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Dawn says: I’d like to sing a song with my sons for the audience.  We have a song that we sing together for the holidays entitled, “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Bring Us Peace).  We sing it in a round that ends up accentuating a beautiful medieval to renaissance harmony that I think the audience might appreciate.  Despite the fact that these wonderful young men were language-delayed in their youth, my sons have grown up to speak normally, play musical instruments, and can socialize with others.  I credit music (including vocal, instrumental, and musical theater) for many of the great emotional strides they made.  They connected with it when they couldn’t connect with other people.  Eventually, they were able to use music to bridge the gap.

Closing Words

Thanks so much to Dawn for sharing with us today and for all she does to enhance lives with music. As I was editing this episode for release, I realized this episode is Ep. 100, which is quite a milestone; and Enhance Life with Music is coming up on our 2nd birthday in August! This Ep. 100 kind of sneaked up on me, but I would like to be more intentional in celebrating our 2nd birthday. Please help us celebrate this milestone by rating and leaving a written review in whatever podcasting app you use, or on Podchaser.com. I’ll be reading reviews on the show as part of our celebration! I have another celebratory announcement: I’m so excited to let you know that Enhance Life with Music was chosen to be the featured music podcast in the upcoming August issue of Podcast Magazine!! I was interviewed for that article last week, and I’ll keep you posted when that August issue is released! I am an avid reader of Podcast Magazine, so I’m really excited and honored to be featured in this publication! As always, you’ll find a transcription of this episode and lots of links in the show notes. And you’ll find me on email (mindy@mpetersonmusic.com), Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. All links are on my website and in the episode details right in your podcast app. Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

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