My pilot in music and autism: thoughts on empathy, mirroring and rapport

I’ve been employed at California State University, Northridge since last September as a research assistant in the psychology department working on a study in autism, working memory and music. I completed my training and began administration of the study in January of this year. I’ve tested ten clinical subjects, three control subjects, and loved nearly every moment. What I’d like to speak about is a fairly recent observation.

It’s nothing short of ironic that I am almost identically following in the academic footsteps of my mother. Despite the fact that she was not satisfied until the completion of her second doctorate in phenomenological and existential psychology, she spent a great deal of time before and after as an independently contracted school diagnostician. When I told her I was to be trained on how to properly administer the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for children, she was beside herself. I suppose it should not be ironic, then, that the one thing I’ve come to enjoy most in the process is what I’d heard years of stories pertaining to when I was a child. That aspect is the outcome when one properly executes and achieves psychological rapport.

The concept of rapport can obviously be applied in a number of contexts and situation, and like most things, can be pursued and established for good or ill. It is a technique used in manipulation, in sales, and in seduction. It can also used to coax out life-saving information from victims in the midst trauma, to bond with strangers in a new environment, and closest to home for me, to comfort and elicit high performance qualities from nervous children brought in for an extensive battery of psychoeducational evaluation. As they frequently wonder “What is wrong with me?” or “Why am I here?” I have learnt a bit of understanding and reaching out can go for miles. One of the most interesting features  I’ve observed thus far as that the children on the ASD scale-children thought to commonly possess a ‘faulty’ mirror neuron system that would keep them from typically developed empathy responses- should seem so sensitive to their surroundings.

Every child, with the exception of one (who in the end did not meet the criteria for the study), has not only displayed a warm demeanor and trusting disposition, but also has volunteered to sing back to me in my pilot study. After testing my first two control subjects, I realized that asking high school boys to sing to me may as well have been climbing Mt.Everest (or so I thought).  However, nine out of ten of my clinical subjects, after my initial singing the pilot study to them, felt comfortable enough to sing it right back to me, as my original protocol dictates. This reasoning can be due to a number of things, but it’s an achievement I was unable to make with any control subjects. All I know is had the first autistic male not simply asked that instead of speaking the phrases after me, “Can I sing it out loud like you did?” I never would have continued the pilot in that manner, and heard the other 8 boys sing.

It is small testing group thus far to be sure. I’m still sorting through data, and trying to discern exactly what it shows about the empathy, musicianship and working memory of the young, high-functioning autistic population. Until I do, I simply wanted to share the portion of it that made me so incredibly happy. While the most difficult part of the project was reading through each individual IEP and noting every social and emotional setback the child had experienced, the easiest part was talking and joking with the boys about how much they played video games, that they were eating all the oreos and juice set aside for their parents, and what lovely singing voices they had. I do not always love the computational administration, or working with personnel who do not share my passion for children. I do, however, love these kids, and have all the hope for them in the world. Rapport does not have to be a dangerous method of transference and countertransference that sets the psychologist on the path of no return. It does not have to be an empty therapeutic tactic to secure a goal with little regard of what the patient really needs. It really can just be taking a short amount of time out of your day, and looking at life through another’s perspective. One will often be amazed with what they find.

3 thoughts on “My pilot in music and autism: thoughts on empathy, mirroring and rapport

  1. I enjoyed reading this immensely, Diana. I for one am pleased to see this kind of humanity in the administration of experimental research in psychology. I’m very much looking forward to hearing more about this project of yours…


  2. Thanks so much, Bob! A lot has certainly happened since the time I emailed you my complete (and first ever) jumble of a proposal 🙂 I’ve learned so much about the process, but working with the kids one-on-one is just something else. Thanks for the continued support!

  3. Pingback: Music therapy success in redirection of fight-or-flight behaviors in children with ASD « As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears

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