Accessing thoughts, feelings and emotions in young people with autism and learning difficulties using songwriting

By 4th April 2017Blog

My name is Jim Chorley and I work for SoCo Music Project. I’m a community music practitioner with my specialism being songwriting. I work with groups of vulnerable young people and adults across Southampton and Hampshire. I see my role as being a facilitator, enabling people to connect with their innate and inherent musically creative selves.

I have been working in a specialist secondary school in Basingstoke for young people with learning difficulties for the last five months. Along with three other colleagues, with have been delivering a tailor made 10 week music programme for the full year 8 cohort. There are four cohorts in total and at present we are teaching the third one. The programme consists of songwriting, drumming and percussion workshops, singing lessons and music production using relevant iPad apps, with the tenth and final lesson culminating with a live performance of their original songs and music.

I am aware that there is a pervading assumption and stereotype that people with autism cannot understand emotion and lack empathy, but there are up to date findings and research that offer a very different picture of an autistic individual’s response to emotional stimuli. This post offers an insight into using songwriting as a vehicle to both elicit and discuss these emotional responses, and how they can then be understood and utilised creatively and musically.

We start each cohort with a songwriting workshop and this songwriting thread is followed throughout the course. In the first lesson we encourage the young people to listen to an original song I’ve written called ‘Gabi and the Crow’. I play the song live using my acoustic guitar and for many this is the first time they have heard live original music in their classroom. The song is written about a young girl who every day would feed the crows in her back garden. One day she goes to feed them and discovers that they have brought her trinkets and treasures in return for her kindness.

Before I play the song I, ask the young people to listen carefully and try to find ‘what they think the song is about’ ‘What the title could be’ ‘Any lyrics they hear’ and most importantly ‘how does the song make them feel’ ?. These questions within this starter activity are to initiate a deeper and more profound listening experience. Asking these questions, as we listen to a song we’ve never heard before, isn’t usually the way we listen to music, but this task is designed to encourage the young people to begin accessing and understanding the thoughts, emotions and creative motives within and behind the songwriting process.

In the feedback element of the workshop the young people are encouraged to share their findings and talk about the meanings and motifs they have uncovered from their listening task. As mentioned previously, I am aware that there is an assumption that people with autism cannot understand emotion and lack empathy, but we find the young people will readily tell us how the song made them feel and how they related to the songs content. They will inform us that the song made them feel a variety of things, ranging from happy to reflective to interested to a feeling of sadness. At the beginning of this listening and speaking task we make sure to tell the young people that there are no ‘wrong’ answers and that because they are all individuals they will all respond differently. This encourages them to share their thoughts and feelings without the pressure of there being only one ‘right’ answer. This is a very different way of viewing ‘answers’ in an educational sense for many of the group, as they have grown up understanding that in other subjects there are hard and fast rules. Being right, isn’t what is required in these sessions. It is about being an individual and having faith and trust in your own personal feelings, emotions and responses. These discussions are an open forum where we as practitioners are also stimulated to view our songs from the young people’s perspectives and it is interesting how the songs can be seen to have very different meanings than we first imagined.

In the creation of their own songs the young people are encouraged to use the feedback process as a motivation to access and connect with their imagination and intuition.

In this connection they write lyrics, melody and music which are individual, emotive and relatable.

Songs and music play an important role in our culture. We listen for enjoyment and pleasure, we are elevated and enlightened and our thoughts, feelings and emotions are heightened. The young people with autism and learning difficulties that we have worked with, access all of these feelings and emotions and in educational settings can be inspired to create and write meaningful, moving music and songs.

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