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Every brain is unique! Working with Music and Autism

Updated: Mar 20

Music for Good Practitioner Jamie Crowe reflects on his own journey with mental health and how that helps inform his work with neurodivergent children and young people.


Music for Good has more than a 20-year track record of delivering high quality, inclusive music for well-being provision across Cornwall. Our unique, research-informed model is relational, person-centred and trauma-informed. We work with practitioners who are skilled at making connections and can respond to individual need.

Our experience has shown that everyone can enjoy the benefits of music and creativity in the right environment – and we work hard to attune to the needs of every individual we work with. This is at the heart of successful working with neurodiversity, in all its colours and forms!

We hope you enjoy reading this article by practitioner Jamie Crowe.

Introducing Jamie

I have worked for more than 18 years as a music for well-being practitioner across Cornwall, in a range of settings, from mainstream education, AP Academies, Youth Centres and more recently Sowenna, Cornwall’s first residential adolescent mental health unit.

My work as a music practitioner has led me to meet many young people with a broad spectrum of mental health challenges and personality traits – some diagnosed, some not. I battled with mental health as a young person and was diagnosed with Cyclothymia – bi-polar disorder, but with more frequent episodes. It is not the same as autism, but I do think it is linked to my artistic temperament, as I believe is the case with autism.

Gaining experience and skills

What I have learnt through working with young people with autism, is that no two people are the same and there is a spectrum of presentations. One of my first projects specifically for young people with autism was a group after-school project for children aged 11-13. We introduced them to various instruments and sang songs together – it was a really lovely project because it was designed around them, it worked really well. I have worked one to one with young people with autism in a mainstream setting. One was high functioning and there were certain triggers to avoid and occasional emotional outbursts but on the whole, he engaged excellently with the music and had a brilliant mind.

Important learning

Equal opportunities doesn’t necessarily mean that all young people should be involved with the same level of support – it means providing the level of support required in order for all young people to participate as fully as they can.

I worked with a more socially challenged autistic young person at a band workshop during the school holidays. Everyone else on the project was in mainstream education and someone had thought to include him at the last minute. It was a disaster. His needs were very specific, and he didn’t come with a carer to work alongside him.

After warm ups we formed the young people into ensembles and because myself and my co-worker were already stretched we had to float between the bands, help for a bit then leave them to get on with it.

His social impact was so negative that it led to a couple of the bands imploding, so we had to make the quick decision to assign my coworker to stay with him. As a practitioner, this was a challenging situation where someone had decided to include this young person in a project without sufficient briefing and support in place. It could have been much more successful if we could have planned better for this and provided the necessary support from the start.

Sowenna – a residential mental health hospital for young people

My previous experience and learning meant that I was able to enter this setting understanding the necessary parameters and conditions for positive and enriching work. The great thing about Sowenna is that this is already part of the culture and there is a lot of support and staffing in place.

My first participant here was at the most extreme side of the spectrum. He wasn’t in Sowenna for long, so we only had one session together. He loved music and was able to express himself when he played. The Head of the Education Unit provided clear boundaries, which helped guide me in working with this young person. This young person had incredible passion for music but little harmonic awareness and frequently left the key we were playing in. In my jazz college days we would call this ‘playing out’ but it wasn’t that because he went out and didn’t come back. He used blues scales and moved up the neck when he felt the music should go higher. As our connection was so fleeting, I was unable to guide him back. However, it was great to see how much he could immerse himself in it and how much he loved it.

Music was something he needed – a way of expressing feelings that he couldn’t express socially.

Relational Connection = Musical and Creative flourishing!

My second young person with autism at Sowenna lasted several sessions, which allowed a relationship to develop. This took some time and was a challenge at first. She didn’t show much interest in joining in when there were 3 of us playing in the room, including one of her friends, despite being a great player. She would just sit and do her own thing rather than join in with others.

I was aware that she was listening to Billie Eilish, so thought this might be my ‘way in’, suggesting we play one of her songs. This didn’t work, so instead of making further suggestions I followed her lead. I attuned by gently playing along with her and eventually we collaborated on ‘Riptide’ – a song we both knew well. This seemed to break the ice and I offered positive feedback on her achievement.

After this, she started opening up to me and sharing more about her musical background. Sessions were always led by her starting to play and I would join in, sometimes with other setting staff and young people joining in too.

After a few sessions like this we returned once again to Riptide and myself and setting staff suggested we record it as she was so good at it. She agreed and knowing that it’s often a case of seize the moment when working at Sowenna, we got straight onto it that day. After I had quickly laid down a guitar part to a simple 4 to the floor bass drum, we recorded her vocals.

She responded well to the process and my coaching her through details like headphone balance. I was impressed by how unfazed she was because recording is quite different from just singing with a guitar and she took to it very naturally. The lead she laid down was full of character, in tune and very nicely phrased.

I asked her if she’d be up for ‘tracking’ the choruses - a recording technique where you copy your own voice to build it up and make it sound more choral. She agreed and I soon noticed that she was exceptionally good at it.

The process involves listening to what you’ve already sung and then singing along to it trying to make it as similar as possible. Usually it takes a few listens - or you do it a phrase at a time. She listened once and did the whole chorus and then the double chorus at the end and got it spot on first time.

I reinforced the positive reflection about how good she was at it and she told me it was because she had ‘Echolalia’ - a condition that causes her to mimic what she hears. It is sometimes quite difficult to live with, but in this case turned into a huge advantage.

The following week she put the Ukulele on having sought me out during outside activity to ask if we could do music. It’s testament to how much our relationship had developed that she approached me - something she never would have done at the beginning or even the week before. The recording process had provided the opportunity for camaraderie to develop.

I saw her again but only briefly as she was out on leave. I had hoped to record percussion on the track with her, which she had expressed an interest in but was unavailable, so I finished the track myself on the last day of term.

I feel like all my experiences with autism led me to this one and helped provide me with the tools that led to such a positive outcome. It varies so much according to the individual and most of the credit goes to the young person - for her talent and willingness to engage in the process, and Sowenna for facilitating the work so well.

But there are recurring themes and my experience helped me especially at the beginning. She kept rejecting me, musically speaking and being very direct in her rejection of the ideas and suggestions I was putting forward. Internally I felt that rejection but then remembered that this is autism - that I would have to approach it in a different way. I knew we had to work on her terms, and I followed her lead. I didn’t know if it would lead to anything - just that it was the right thing to do at that time. It worked and was the door to a much more collaborative process.

Click below to listen to the track ‘Riptide’ created by the young person at Sowenna.

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