This post is in the Autistic Spectrum Disorders category

Recent research from around the world indicates that around one in 160 children will meet diagnostic criteria for an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (Latif & Williams, 2007; Montiel-Nava & Peña, 2008; Newschaffer et al., 2007; Nicholas et al., 2008; Oliveira et al., 2007; Santaella, Varela, Linares & Disdier, 2008; Williams, MacDermott, Ridley, Glasson & Wray, 2008; Yeargin-Allsopp, 2008).  With lesser numbers or sub-clinical presentation of traits, an individual may fit the description of the “Broader Autistic Phenotype”   (Dawson et al., 2002; Hurley, Losh, Parlier, Reznick & Piven, 2006; Micali, Chakrabarti & Fombonne, 2004; Skuse, Mandy & Scourfield, 2005, p. 568) but not “qualify” for a diagnosis.

Williams’  (2008) study in Australia suggests that prevalence of Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) among children in Australia is similar to other developed nations. This was based on widely varying records kept in the various states and highlighted a need for a more consistent and accurate way of tracking the “epidemiology”.   The study was focussed on children, as the primary area of government interest in Australia and elsewhere is in education and early intervention strategies for supporting families.  Incidence of the condition, or the number of new cases reported per year is rising quite rapidly  (Ehlers & Gillberg, 1993; Fombonne, 2003; Latif & Williams, 2007; Nassar et al., 2009; Williams et al., 2005; Williams et al., 2008) and is in part thought to be related to improved recognition and understanding; however, all the research cited above is careful not to rule out an actual increase in autism in the population.

It is important to remember that ASDs are lifelong conditions and children grow into youth and adults and eventually old age.  Very few individuals now at college age or older were diagnosed as children, and the issue of diagnosis becomes more complex with age due to individuals developing coping mechanisms.   It is therefore likely that the majority of cases of heightened autistic traits that an educator in tertiary practice or adult music environments will encounter are undiagnosed, and may indeed be hard to spot or be noted as negative characteristics such as absent mindedness, poor time-management or laziness, poor communication – unless you know what to look for.

One element of diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome is a narrow and intense range of interests, and these interests are often typified by the use of “systems”  (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2003) and patterns.  Since music, composition, and audio production, with its reliance on computers and high technology, surely fit this term, it is not unreasonable to suggest that other people with heightened traits or a diagnosable ASD may be attracted to these disciplines.  In fact it is widely acknowledged that some of our great musical heroes may have been affected to some degree  (Fitzgerald, 2003; Fitzgerald, 2005; Rubinyi, 2006).  This proposition is based on respected biographies, letters and other historical accounts and includes such luminaries as Beethoven, Mozart, Satie, Bartok and Glenn Gould.  Other, non musical artists are not immune from this examination, however a notable aspect of Fitzgerald’s work is that his selection of artists are all creative loners – all highly innovative, focussed, driven, and avoiding creative collaboration.  In many of the cases quoted, personal relationships are also fraught with difficulty.

Somewhat counter-intuitively given a range of “impairments”, there is a recognition that an individual with AS has a greater likelihood of entering university than the general population, but less likely to succeed there (Baker, 2004; Glennon, 2001; Gray & Attwood, 1999; Harpur, Fitzgerald & Lawlor, 2004; Palmer, 2005; Sullivan Moore, 2006), although there do not appear to be any statistical studies of music institutions. My own observations would suggest that there is a higher than average level of autistic traits in particular areas of music-making (especially composition and music technology) and this must surely have implications for institutional and vocational training in those fields.

Initial proposals for this research included a statistical study to examine the theory that autistic traits might be clustered in individuals in a tertiary music school, particularly in the composition and music technology (systematic) and music studies (patterns and analysis) areas, rather than the performance and jazz (spontaneity, empathy) departments. While ethical clearance and methodological proposals for this were developed, I eventually decided to conduct a more personally focussed study. It certainly seemed possible to do a statistical study and identify traits within the population of the music institution, however I felt that this would to improve understanding the condition in myself, and without this, my contribution to others would be severely limited. On an anecdotal level, I have had direct contact with approximately 350 students in audio production, music technology and similar fields over the past four years. In a “whole population” sample this would equate to one or two individuals with obviously heightened traits or an ASD diagnosis. Even taking into account the Asperger no intellectual impairment criteria which statistically puts the AS group above average intelligence, one would not expect the numbers that I encounter. Of those students, four have a diagnosis and another looks to my experienced but unqualified eye, looks like a strong candidate. Another three students exhibit heightened traits in lesser concentrations which sometimes get the better of them in certain circumstances. On the face of it it would appear that my field is an Aspie trap – opportunities for further study abound.  One of the diagnosed students, “Allan” has his story among these pages.

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