A Comparative Study of the Effects of Music on Emotional State in the Normal and High-functioning Autistic Population

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Allen, Rory
  • Subject: C800 | C850
    mesheuropmc: humanities | behavioral disciplines and activities

It has been assumed that the social deficits inherent in autism imply that individuals with the condition will be unable fully to appreciate the emotional content of music. My aim was to test this assumption, and to explore more widely the similarities and differences between the experience of music in the normal population and those with autism. My first study used musically-induced mood changes and a behavioural measure to show that music does indeed have a more than superficial effect on cognitive processes in a control group. The second study focused on high-functioning adults on the autism spectrum, using semi-structured interviews to investigate the part that music played in their everyday lives, concluding that autism is no bar to full appreciation of the emotional uses of music, though suggesting a degree of impoverishment in the language they used to describe the emotions. The final set of experiments compared control and autism group directly, using physiological (GSR) measures of arousal together with self-report of the emotions evoked by a set of musical items. Standardised questionnaires were used to measure alexithymia (difficulty in identifying and describing feelings) in individuals. Although the autism group experienced comparable levels of physiological arousal to music, they used fewer words than the control group to describe their emotional responses, a difference which correlated strongly with their level of alexithymia. My results are consistent with the hypothesis that in autism, the basic physiological and emotional component of their reactivity to music is functioning normally, but that their ability to translate these reactions into conventional emotional language is reduced, precisely in line with the extent of their alexithymia. These results suggest that the preserved ability of music to generate emotional arousal in autism may lead to clinical applications for the treatment of alexithymia in autism and other conditions.
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