Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The healing power of music for a man with Asperger's

From the intro to a story in The Miami Herald:

Tim Page finds solace in sounds that most would call dissonant. ''I'm one of the very few people in the world who rather enjoys having an MRI,'' says Page, a classical music critic in Los Angeles whose book Parallel Play: Life as an Outsider, a memoir of his experiences with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, will be published later this year. ``I find something really comforting in this jszih jszih jszih.''

Conversely, Dr. Oliver Sacks writes in his 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain about a patient for whom all music sounds like pots and pans being thrown to the floor. What makes music music? Do we know it when we hear it? What about people who don't hear music? Is one person's concerto another's cacophony?

Scientists, musicologists, music therapists and general readers are increasingly pondering questions like these, as the neurological study of music continues to grow and draw public interest.

A couple of well-received books have recently popularized interest in the subject, while in Cleveland, one of the world's foremost neurological clinics and top orchestras have combined resources to advance research on music and the brain. Scientists are literally listening in to the cortex listening to Beethoven. In the process, they're tackling the adages: Is music the universal language? And can it indeed be used to soothe if not the savage breast, then at least the disordered human?

Page knows well the profound effects of music. As a child, music was about the only thing that made sense in a cognitively chaotic world.

''Back then it was a life raft,'' says the former Washington Post music critic, who now teaches at USC. ``It was something that I understood, it was something that I was comfortable with, it was something that I loved, it was something that I could escape into, it was something that I was actually good at pretty much immediately and even before training. It would take me into a trance, and all the worries of the world would disappear in music. Although that's too simple, because it also gave me a sense of sad things too. Music was almost like a translation of the world for me. I could understand things if I was listening to them musically.''

When Page was 45, he was finally given an explanation for the problems that had plagued him all his life: He was diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. In a sense, Page had been self-medicating with music.

Autism is one of several conditions that can be treated with neurological music therapy, says Shannon del'Etoile, director and associate professor of the music therapy program at the University of Miami.

''The autistic child has difficulty taking in and making sense of sensory information,'' del'Etoile says. ``Children with autism do seem to have a sensitivity to music. They are quick to pick up on patterns, and music is made of patterns. Music gives them a vehicle to guide their attention. That ability to detect patterns can enhance learning of speech and language.''