We learned about Music and Sound Therapy for treating Autism (ASD) as well as other Pervasive Development Disorders (PDD), early on our journey with Isy. There are several different types of Sound or Music Therapy, also know as Auditory Stimulation Therapy, available and we certainly did have our doubts at first, however after seeing the results and then later learning about the theory behind it we were convinced.
There has been some extensive research conducted over many years that suggests that the brain maps in developing children are affected by environmental noise. The crucial period of the developing brain is when children learn to differentiate sounds, these new learned sounds are mapped in the brain thus enabling them to learn speech as they develop.
Michael Merzenich conducted many experiments and research in Neuro-Plasticity or Brain Plasticity. This is a science of how the brain can adapt to stimuli and repair itself after damage, by re-mapping certain functions to other parts of the brain, normally used or reserved for other specific mappings.
In 1996 Merzenich teamed up with other researchers and psychologists and formed a company named Scientific Learning which is wholly devoted to Neuro-Plastic research. The company developed a program named Fast ForWord which had remarkable results in aiding children with speech and language difficulties. This then led Merzenich to deepen his understanding of Autism (ASD) and Pervasive Development Disorders (PDD).
Merzenich’s work on the “critical development period” and BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) helped him develop a theory that explains how so many different problems the ASD children are affected by could be part of a single autistic whole.
When we perform an activity that requires specific neurons to fire together, they release BDNF. This consolidates the connections between the neurons and helps to wire them together as well as turning off or closing down the critical period once the it has strengthened the key connections.
Merzenich argues that in children that are genetically predisposed to Autism some situations overexcite the neurons leading to massive premature release of BDNF, so instead of important connections being reinforced, all connections are. So much BDNF is released that it turns off the critical period prematurely, sealing all the connections in place, and the child is left with scores of undifferentiated brain maps and hence pervasive development disorders.
Their brains are hyper-excitable and hypersensitive, if they hear one frequency the whole auditory cortex starts firing. This also explains why most children with Autism also have epilepsy and that strobe lights, which are pulsed multifrequency light, can trigger an epileptic fit.
Autistic children process sound in an abnormal way
Recent brain scan studies now confirm that Autistic children do indeed process sound in an abnormal way and that the undifferentiated cortex plays an important role in difficulty paying attention and learning.
Using rats for their research they found that by using white noise they de-differentiated the auditory maps and simulated an autistic condition, they then normalised and re-differentiated the auditory maps using very simple tones, one at a time.
Sounds and music re-train brain circuits of Autistic children
This is the theory behind using sounds and music to re-train or re-map the brain circuits of a child with Autism or Pervasive Development Disorders. This research also led Merzenich to improve the program Fast ForWord to also help children with Autism.
We only learned about Fast ForWord recently after reading the book which most of the above information is from “The Brain That Changes Itself” (highly recommended reading), however we did hear about “auditory stimulation therapy” quite early on our journey with Isy.
Samonas therapy for Autism and Pervasive Development Disorders
One program that we did use was the “Samonas Sound Therapy”. This uses specially selected recordings of classical music, natural sounds and voices. Specific technical modifications are made to the sound frequencies so the end result may bring about changes in the function of the neurological system, auditory processing speed and auditory focus and discrimination.
We must admit that we did notice a difference over time. Isy was calmer and she started copy sounds, we believe that this was a major step toward her speech and language development.
It was difficult to start off with, as she did not leave the headphones on for very long, the therapist we were seeing suggested we put them on after she fell asleep. This worked and a she got used to the headphones she would wear them in the car, so she was getting the therapy on trips to school and back, as well as other outings.
Doidge, N., M.D. 2007. The Brain That Heals Itself: Penguin Books.
Optimal-Learning. 2010. Samonas Sound Therapy. http://www.optimallearning.com.au/samonas.htm .
© 2011, EJ Banon. All rights reserved.