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Working With Music and Autism

Updated: Mar 9

Practioner: Jamie Crowe

As a music practitioner working in Cornwall on various projects over the last 18 years, I’ve worked with many neurodiverse young people, some diagnosed and some not. I’ve worked in mainstream education, AP Academies, Youth Centres and most recently, at Sowenna Young Persons Mental Health Unit. I should also mention that I’ve had my personal battles with mental health. After many bouts of depression that started in my late teens, I was diagnosed with Cyclothymia - bipolar disorder but with more frequent episodes. It’s not the same as autism, but I do think it’s linked to my artistic temperament and I think the autistic spectrum is related to the artistic one. Stemming from acute sensitivity, which leads to social anxiety, there are many different levels of it and no 2 cases are the same.

One of the first projects I worked on was especially for young people with autism. It was an after school club with 5 young people aged between 11 and 13. We introduced them to various instruments and sang songs - it was a lovely project and because it was designed around them it worked really well. I also have on 2 occasions, worked with a neurodivergent young person in a mainstream setting. One was a high functioning autistic in a school that I taught guitar to on a weekly basis and worked within an after school club where he played as part of a band. In his case there were certain triggers to avoid and occasional emotional outbursts but on the whole he was an excellent student with a brilliant mind.

On another occasion 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 YP 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. We just didn’t have the staff resource to support the young man or the others in the group to include him properly.

I remember being really annoyed - not with him but with whoever it was that thought it was ok to put him into that situation and leave us to deal with it without the correct level of support needed. It had happened because it had been advertised as an ‘equal opportunities’ workshop but his involvement had not been thought through.

Sowenna Residential Mental Health Unit

When I got to Sowenna I had some experience of working with autism and of some of the

parameters necessary to create the right conditions for positive work. One of the great things about somewhere like Sowenna is that it’s set up for this kind of work and therefore those parameters are already in place. My first autistic student there - K was the most severely autistic I had worked with.

Our musical collaboration only lasted one session as he wasn’t at Sowenna long. He loved music and really expressed himself when he played. As I was getting to know him that day, the setting lead, Jayne set strict boundaries in terms of time as he wanted to play all day becoming more and more lost in his own world. I enjoyed playing with him but didn’t really have a chance to develop a relationship. He had incredible passion in his playing but no harmonic awareness at all and frequently left the key we were 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 scale 1 and moved it up the neck when he felt the music should go higher. Attempts to show him the other positions that would allow him to do that without changing key fell on deaf ears. 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.

My second neurodivergent student - B lasted several sessions which allowed a relationship to develop. At first it was challenging to work in any way collaboratively with her. She wasn't interested in ‘joining in’ as such – even though to begin with there were 3 of us playing in the main room including one of her friends. She declined my invitation to join in. So instead of making suggestions I played along with what she was doing (by watching her fingers on the neck ) and eventually we got to Riptide – a song we both knew well. Afterwards I complimented her on how well she sung it and it seemed like the ice was broken. She opened up more and told me a bit about her musical background. The sessions continued in the main room in much the same flexible way - letting her lead and joining in. After a few sessions like this we returned once again to Riptide and suggested we record 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 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 make it sound fuller. She was exceptionally good at it.

Usually it takes a few listens - or you do it a phrase at a time. She listened once and did the whole thing in one take and got it spot on first time. I gushed 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 B 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 to 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 B - 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. B kept rejecting me, musically speaking and being very direct in her rejection. Internally I felt that rejection, but then remembered that this is autism - that I would have to approach it in a different way and not to take it personally. 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 by completely accepting and being led by her was the right thing to do.

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