Dean Olsher LCAT, MT-BC, MS

A Sound Mind

Music Therapy and Autism: An Ethical Dilemma

What the neurodiversity movement means for music therapy.

Posted Nov 01, 2015

Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Music therapists are effective at treating autism. Autistic people think it is wrong of us to try.

Perhaps you flinched at my use of the word autistic, as opposed to the more accepted, person-first construction: person with autism. Our culture is getting better at separating the person from the condition, and yet people who identify themselves as autistic believe that our well-intentioned efforts are misguided. For people in the neurodiversity movement (documented by Steve Silberman in his debate-framing book NeuroTribes) autism is not a disorder, it’s who they are. Instead of focusing our attention on curing autism, they think we should cure a society that does not know how to accommodate them as they are.

Autistic people view person-first language an “oppressive force,” said Kenneth Aigen during his keynote address October 30 at a conference hosted by Molloy College. Aigen, one of music therapy’s deepest thinkers, considered the implications of the neurodiversity movement for our profession.

He pointed to several efforts meant to create change in our culture, including the Musical Autist, a non-profit organization that puts on trademarked SensoryFriendly Concerts™—musical events minus “the social restraints of having to sit perfectly still like in a typical concert venue.” 

This issue came to light in September when a child made noises during a performance of The King and I on Broadway; a cast member chided audience members online for yelling at the mother. More and more, Broadway theaters are staging “autism-friendly performances.”

Aigen also pointed to recent research in Israel that forces us to rethink echolalia, a common feature of autism defined by Merriam-Webster as “the often pathological repetition of what is said by other people as if echoing them.” If you reimagine autism not as a processing error but as a different operating system, it becomes easy to revisit echolalia as an adaptation akin to digital sampling.

In the face of the neurodiversity movement, it’s not at all clear how music therapists ought to proceed. After all, not everyone on the spectrum sees autism as their identity, and where they come down on the matter is often unknowable. People can let us know if they identify as Deaf, or if, instead of he or she, the preferred pronoun is they. How should we approach therapy with the sizable chunk of the spectrum occupied by people who can’t speak for themselves?

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