Dylan’s Life In Song: music and autism

music 024One of the things that is striking about Dylan’s school reports is their lack of agreement about whether or not he likes music: Dylan loves music; assembly causes Dylan distress; Dylan responds well to music; Dylan is not comfortable in music sessions; Dylan enjoys listening to CDs; Dylan covers his ears. 

In this post I speculate on the reasons for Dylan’s apparently contradictory response to music. Inspired by my participation in a project run by Christy at runningonsober, I include songs selected by Dylan. Christy invited fellow bloggers to tell the story of their lives in ‘six songs and a bonus’ and last week it was my turn (you can listen to my seven songs here). I am including Dylan’s songs in this post not in order to tell his life story but to illustrate his relationship with music.

Auditory hypersensitivity

In a previous post I have written about auditory sensitivity in autism and some of the therapeutic interventions which can be made. Dylan undoubtedly experiences auditory discomfort; he often clamps his right arm over his head, his upper arm held tightly against his right ear and a finger pushed into his left ear. This is canny: as Dylan is left handed it leaves his strong arm free to pull whoever is supporting him out of the situation causing him distress.

As well as being disturbed by a range of environmental sounds (children crying, dogs barking, motorbikes) it is possible that Dylan hears frequencies most of us cannot; the idea that Dylan hears in ultrasound underpins my poem sequence The Bat Detector, for example. I suspect that ‘deep’ background noise (such as heating systems, underground streams and sap through trees) is also audible to Dylan. Other autistic people have reported similar disturbance; some have posted clips on youtube which simulate this experience. Watching these videos is an uncomfortable experience and has helped me to comprehend just how powerful Dylan’s auditory disturbance may be. This hypersensitivity may, I suspect, explain both the pleasure and the pain which Dylan can find in music.

Music as discomfort: environmental noise

Brittany 13 175It is possible, I think, that this backdrop of environmental noise reduces the clarity of music in the same way that it interferes with Dylan’s processing of spoken language. Dylan may find music as uncomfortable as language in certain contexts (busy and open spaces, such as assembly halls, for example). Conversely, some environments may be particularly comfortable places for processing music. I’ve noticed, for example, that Dylan enjoys listening to music in the car. While some songs still cause him discomfort, the interior of a car seems to be good for listening. This also seems to be a useful space for Dylan to process language; he often extracts meaning from language more easily in the car. Perhaps the very features of private transport we complain about (sealed and isolated from others) are helpful to Dylan.

music 029The ultimate privacy in listening is via headphones. In a previous post I’ve written about the use of headphones to block or clear out background noise, for example via auditory integration therapy. Until he was a teenager the only music which Dylan would listen to (with one exception which I’ll return to) was nursery rhyme audio tapes. When I persuaded him to accept a nursery rhyme CD my daughter offered to put it on an i-pod shuffle for Dylan. This created challenge as well as possibility. Although we could now use music to lessen Dylan’s discomfort in the community, if we didn’t get the choice of music right it would have the opposite effect: delivering music which Dylan found painful directly into his ears was far worse than an uncomfortable environment.

music 014Don’t put anything on there your brother doesn’t like or know already, I instructed my daughter. I would discover her sneaky inclusions on the ipod from time to time as Dylan pulled the ear buds out and let me listen in (usually to a french pop song). One of the introductions my daughter made was crucial, however, in moving Dylan away from nursery rhymes; she had noticed his interest in one of my CDs and put this onto his shuffle. When Dylan first started to bring me the CD  (a collaboration between Elvis Costello and Anne Sofie Von Otter) I thought he was anticipating my behaviour rather than expressing a preference of his own. Later I would realise that it wasn’t that Dylan thought I wanted to listen to it but that he did. Dylan now has this album on CD, i-pod shuffle and i-pad. Is it possible, through this album, to identify the features of music which bring Dylan particular joy?

Music as joy: pitch and key

music 031Part of Dylan’s hypersensitive hearing involves a discriminating ear; I believe he has perfect pitch. Dylan cannot bear the sound of school and amateur choirs. He finds music played through poor equipment painful. He cannot endure piped music through public address systems. This may be partly due to the background noise of electronic equipment but I have seen Dylan react with equal discomfort to poorly pitched acoustic music and a capella singing. Many of Dylan’s musical choices may therefore be determined by the quality of sound; I’m sure the fact Von Otter is classically trained has a bearing on Dylan’s experience.

music 027It isn’t just about pitch though; Dylan may also have particular key preferences. When Dylan was very young  a musicologist, having observed Dylan’s engagement with music one evening declared: I think it’s Eb and Bb he likes – the language of the blues. Over the years I’ve seen this hunch borne out. Although at home Dylan only listened to nursery rhymes, at primary school he had a jazz blues tape which one of the teachers made for him and which Dylan listened to if he became anxious during the school day. Among Dylan’s favourite CDs today (though not making it into his final seven) are Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald.

Feeling the music

There have been a number of cases over the years of autistic children and adults with extraordinary musical talent. This sits quite comfortably in my mind with the gift for number which some autistic people demonstrate; music and mathematics share the same underlying structures. For these purposes, however, I want to focus on people such as Dylan who don’t show any obvious musical gift; while I’ve seen Dylan pick up a pair of drumsticks and keep effortless time, he doesn’t play an instrument. At home he lets me play piano and recorder but draws the line at harmonica; his arm clamps quickly across his head if I so much as pick it up.

music 012Perhaps for this reason it’s taken a while for Dylan to tolerate my Bob Dylan collection. It is only tolerate though: I bought Dylan a copy of the Essential Bob Dylan last Christmas but it’s never been out of its case. Could this be about pitch and key? Is Dylan less enamoured of Bob than Nina because of the way they sound? I don’t think I have encouraged one rather than the other; I play them both equally and with equal joy. I could draw this distinction though; I don’t dance to Bob Dylan.

Over the last year my Dylan has discovered that he loves to dance. Every evening he chooses some music then holds his arms out to me. When I say ‘dance’ I should qualify this: it is spinning rather than dancing. Dylan takes you by the arms and with his eyes closed he spins clockwise as fast as you are prepared to accompany him. I have never known him become dizzy; he would spin all night if I let him. Every trick I try I cannot last more than one song. It ends with me clutching the table: I’m sorry Dylan mummy’s dizzy. This, then, is music as sensory pleasure: choose a singer with perfect pitch; give her the Ebs and Bbs; lay down a rhythm; and spin, spin, spin.

music 011One of the distinctive features of jazz and blues is syncopation. Syncopation refers to the interruption of expected rhythmic patterns; instead of the beat our ear expects (based on the rhythm already established within a piece) we encounter variety. Miles Hoffman explains this as “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm” through a “placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur.” (Hoffman, 1997). Given that autistic people are believed to favour the expected over the unexpected, an enjoyment of syncopation may appear a surprising feature of Dylan’s engagement with the language of music.

A research project exploring the neurological links between language and music has emphasised the parallel structures of conversation and jazz (LaFrance, 2014). Charles Limb, a musician and medic at John Hopkins, mapped the brains of jazz musicians and found that areas of the brain linked to meaning ‘shut down’ during improvisational jazz sessions. Jazz, Limb suggests, is based on structure and syntax rather than semantics: “It doesn’t have propositional elements or specificity of meaning in the same way a word does”. This, Limb argues, is more complicated than language:

If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech…I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct.

Music and feelings

music 015While Dylan’s interest in jazz rhythms may be underpinned by structure and syntax, his song choices also suggest a role for semantics.  As well as the technical issues of acoustics, rhythm, pitch and key, Dylan’s engagement with music appears to be emotional. Just as you and I might associate a particular song with happy or sad times, so Dylan seems to have mapped some of his strongest memories on to music. Only recently have I realised that his refusal to listen to this U2 CD is probably because my ex-husband and I were listening to it at a crucial time in the breakdown of our marriage. Sometimes I cannot work out what the associated memory might be but I’m sure it is there; a Tears for Fears cover we are not able to listen to on a Patti Smith album for example.

Dylan’s songs

music 009When Dylan started taking an interest in music I decided to help him build his own music collection. He only ever buys duplicate copies of my CDs, however. To try and extend Dylan I have bought him different CDs by artists he already knows but if he doesn’t recognise the covers he won’t play them. For Dylan, visual information is an important part of his engagement with music.

This means that Dylan’s seven songs are derived from my collection; his individual preferences are, nonetheless, apparent from the music he chooses. Some of the songs have particularly happy emotional associations for him I think; I’m not sure why he likes others but it could be the rhythm, key or quality of sound. I say a few words about what I think may inform Dylan’s selections. To support Dylan to make his choices I spread a long list of his favourite CDs on the floor (prompting Dylan to add to and subtract from these).

music 008

I then invited him to choose one CD at a time until we had seven. I made a visual group of the seven and gave Dylan an opportunity to make changes (he made one: Edie Brickell and New Bohemians lost out to a compilation blues CD). Here is the final result: Dylan’s seven songs. Enjoy 🙂

music 020

Song # 1: Someone Like You by Adele

I would have said Adele 21 was Dylan’s favourite CD so I think this is a secure top spot placing. I suspect that Dylan already knew the album before I acquired it; perhaps he had heard it on the school bus. Dylan particularly likes dancing to Adele. I think he likes all the tracks on the album; I’ve hazarded on this one.

Song # 2: Like an Angel by Anne Sofie Von Otter

Costello and Von Otter’s For The Stars was the first CD Dylan took an interest in. I think he likes the quality of Von Otter’s voice. Like an Angel is a trance-inducing song for Dylan; he can seem close to ecstasy when listening to it.

Song # 3 Shake it Out by Florence and the Machine

Mashee Dylan says to me, Mashee. That’s also what he calls treadmills and cross-trainers; I sometimes wonder what sense Dylan makes of a CD having the same name as the kit in the gym. Perhaps it amuses him. I am a bit surprised Dylan put Florence in 3rd place but I can see why he’d like her voice and the use of orchestral music.

Song # 4: Fields of Gold by Sting

My ex-husband was a fan of Sting and used to play this album a lot. I have a memory of him dancing to it with Dylan in his arms. I bought this CD for myself quite recently after a song on the radio jogged my memory. I was surprised by the way Dylan immediately claimed it and bought a duplicate copy plus a copy for his i-pad. I think he may have a deep memory of dancing with the man he knew for years as his dad.

Song # 5 Nobody’s Baby Now by Nick Cave

Dylan pulled Let Love In off my shelves recently and wanted me to play it. Since then he has been very attached to this album. I’m not sure why but, again, I wonder whether it is a deep memory of my ex-husband who used to play this album. Dylan was insistent that this was the youtube clip he wanted me to use.

Song #6 Night and Day by Billie Holiday

Dylan included a compilation CD of women blues singers in his top seven: lady sings the blues night & day. I’m not sure if he has a favourite song from the collection but I think he’s happy with this one; when I set the clip playing he came running to look. Dylan likes me to play this compilation CD. I think he associates it with good times and dancing.

Song # 7 Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap

I don’t know why Dylan is so attached to Imogen Heap’s album Speak for Yourself. I bought the CD in 2012 after this song was played at the funeral of a friend. It has no connection for Dylan yet this is the song he seems to particularly like. My ex-stepdaughter is called Imogen and I have sometimes wondered if this might explain Dylan’s attachment to the CD; he certainly likes me naming it. Imogen Heap, I say, it’s Imogen Heap. Leep he laughs, Leep.


  • Adrienne LaFrance (2014) ‘How Brains See Music As Language’  in The Atlantic.
  • Miles Hoffman (1997) Syncopation.

Thanks to Christy at Running on Sober for sharing Dylan’s playlist on her blog: here’s a link.  I’m delighted that Dylan won a prize in a competition thanks to the lovely comments left by visitors to Christy’s site 🙂

16 thoughts on “Dylan’s Life In Song: music and autism

  1. lol I want to laugh at this one, not the ouchy parts but at what appears to be a paradox but I know, is not

    The only headphones that I can use at this point are BOSE, that surround my ears. I didn’t have enough for actual noise cancelling but for the most part I can manage my needs by volume and my sound choices. Sometimes even with these I need the sound level on the computer to be up over halfway, in order not to hear water dripping or other sound that is tiny or tinny–or simply so that the sound itself isn’t like a bomb shrieking by. I have lower level sounds like native drums (not random drumming with electronic sounds, but real pow wow recordings and the like) What can work best for me on a sensitive day is a rain track or one with thunder, I can make this increasingly loud and I no longer then have to jump when I hear it out of doors. Often very simple singing and a guitar like John Williams is helpful.. A few tracks of August Rush can do the trick. I have entire playlists to go through seeking the right blend and then ones that help me to shift hearing frequencies so that I can handle going out. I can hear power lines. I can hear the tv screeching and tinny sounds that are as unbearable as a dog whistle–even if the kids have the volume all of the way down. (kids used to holler at me that i just didn’t’ want them watching, until I told them what the tv was saying)

    Sometimes the vibration is so great that my teeth even vibrate and it’s horrid. I have had to learn to bite down to hold my teeth still to ease the pain also in my ears and/or to hum or to repeat words or sounds to myself. After offering some of my own sound helps to some echolalic children incidences of ‘disruptive’ bouts of that subside–perhaps some of the sounds and mouth movements get rid of the nails on a blackboard feeling or cover up noise.
    Ok. I am writing a book again. 🙂 doh

    I can give you a list if you wish to see if he will try it.


    • Hi Elisa – it’s very interesting to read about your sound sensitivity (now I understand why one of your reactions to Dylan’s jumping was to suggest tinnitus as a possibility). I think it’s possible that a lot of what you describe is similar to Dylan’s experience. Interesting that you mention using a rain track. On a Po Girls CD I have, which Dylan likes to listen to, one of the tracks is simply the sound of rain/water. The first time I heard it I thought there was something wrong with my car (we were driving at the time)! Dylan loves it 🙂 I will look up August Rush who I don’t know. Music can definitely help Dylan but equally it can make things worse for him (the apparent paradox). Your comment is really interesting for me in thinking about D’s sound world – thank you so much.


      • Ok. I felt froggy this morning so, I compiled a playlist that moves from one end of the spectrum to the other. Then, I realized I had no way for you to get the tracks…so, I made him a page on Elisa’s Spot called Dylan’s Sounds. Let me know if and when you are finished with it and I will take the page down.


      • Elisa this is so great of you – thanks so much. Have just had a quick look – will play the clips to Dylan and see which he shows an interest in. I have a Madeleine Peyroux CD which I don’t think D has ever noticed – I’ll make a point of playing it when D’s around as she is on your playlist. D likes Desert Rose. Interesting idea that your list moves across a spectrum – I will play through the whole list for D this evening, which is a time he likes to spend alongside me, and see how he responds. THANK YOU! You are a wonderful blog friend and support 🙂


  2. How very cool, Liz! I love the musings on why Dylan may have selected certain songs. He picked some good ones too! I too love Sting and Florence & Machine, and of course I had to smile at Ms. Holliday.

    I’ll save the link and include it in our 6 Songs wrap-up.

    Enjoy your week!


    • Hi Christy – glad you enjoyed! What an inspiration your ‘life in six songs’ has been. Without contributing to your blog I wouldn’t have thought about a playlist for Dylan or the possibility I could help him to put one together. Dylan loves that he has his own songs on here; he keeps getting me to play them. And I love that it has given Dylan a bit more of a voice on the blog. He really enjoyed picking the CDs and it was interesting for me to think about his selections – that’s all down to you so thank you from us both 🙂 Have a lovely week!

      Liked by 2 people

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  5. Liz, this is so awesome..
    every bit of it.
    I know very little about autism and I learned so much from what you have written here, and then how it plays out in the music Dylan chose.
    And your words about the why’s of his choices…moving, and, even while guessing they show such a deep knowledge and understanding of a son that is such an enigma….
    i loved this.
    thank you so much for sharing it with us all


    • This is such a lovely comment mishedup thank you. I had planned to write something about autism and music but Christy’s 6 Song series made me think about Dylan’s favourite songs in a way I don’t think I would have otherwise. Christy has been such an inspiration to me, one way and another. Dylan and I are just back from a few days away – this time I let him choose the music for the trip, following my experience with the 6 songs playlist. He picked out 20 CDs and what I found really touching was that he included some for me which shows he understands different musical preferences I guess. He took complete charge of the music while we were away which was lovely – I think writing the blog has focused my attention so I remember now how strong his interest in music is. Well thank you for reading – I’ve just seen your comment on Christy’s blog too which is lovely – I’ll tell Dylan 🙂


    • Hello! Thanks for looking at Dylan’s songs 🙂 It’s interesting that you should mention Paul Simon – I made a list recently of artists I could introduce Dylan to (based on what I know of his preferences already) and PS was on my list. I played Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and I could see Dylan’s interest flickering a bit. I like the idea of Graceland – I will try it. It is very interesting for me to see Dylan’s musical taste emerge – because he doesn’t use language the preferences feel essential in some way. And it’s great to hear that D’s selections are some of your favourites too – I love that music can cross boundaries and difference like that 🙂


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