In college, I had a quirky and beloved music professor who would stand up at the whiteboard with his T-rex arms, arms that flapped delicately when he became perplexed. Each morning he would start the class by reading us cryptic quotes that only he could make sense of. His speech patterns were completely his own. He wore numerous watches all at the same time and had a number of clocks hung around his office all set to different time zones. “A clock is the first sound I ever heard,” he told us by way of explanation.
This guy could play anything on the piano. To this day he was the best sight reader I have ever seen. He was the one who convinced me to become a Music Composition major, to start seeing the piano as a tool for orchestration, a way to envision all of the other instruments playing together. When I started orchestrating for large ensembles, it was absolutely thrilling to bring my scores to him each week and hear him flawlessly sight read all of the different parts at once.
And yet…this same man was unable to clap along with simple songs we would all sing together as a group. He somehow couldn’t keep a beat for his life unless he was looking at a score.
Looking back, it seems incredible that back in the 90’s we were unable to recognize what has since become one of the most cliche stereotypes of an autistic person—the awkward, white male savant. But so it was.
Fast forward 15 years or so and there I am teaching piano lessons, having my first known interaction with an autistic student. Her mother had called me, anxiously, asking if I would possibly be willing to work with her daughter, “even though she’s autistic.” Of course I agreed, although I was not really sure what to expect. I found the girl to be incredibly sweet and did not find anything about her that I would consider an impediment to learning music. If anything—the opposite. She did interrupt me frequently in her excitement to get started, but that did not bother me. She was clearly very musical and bright. When I played a line for her on the piano, she would sing it back to me in a clear, bright voice that was totally disarming.
But I was uncomfortable every time she came on account of her mother, who would hover in the other room listening, waiting to see if she needed to jump in if her daughter did something too ‘weird.' I have to admit that what really unnerved me about it was that it landed too close to home. It wasn't really this woman who was the problem (she was undoubtedly getting judged all the time for having a daughter who didn't conform to all the norms) and I was mostly likely picking up just the subtlest cues of anxiety on her end and getting triggered from my own experiences. The real issue was that something in her voice reminded me of how my stepmother used to talk about me. I hadn’t thought about that in some time, and I didn’t really want to go back there.
I was not diagnosed autistic as a child (that would have been unheard of in the 80’s as I was female, nonviolent and did well in school). But there were aspects of my personality that my stepmother found odd and unladylike, things she tried very hard to ‘correct.’ I was too loud, too blunt, too passionate about some things and completely oblivious of what was going on around me at other times. She had my hearing checked at one point because people would call to me and I didn’t seem to hear a thing.
When she talked about me to others, I felt as though I could hear the embarrassment in her voice, as though she were apologizing to them for her own inability to make me blend in better with the other kids. Never mind that I had read every book in the elementary school library, wrote my first symphony at 18 and was teaching college courses by 21. The important thing is fitting in and having the best manners…right?
In the years that followed it became increasingly common for parents to tell me their child was autistic and the discussion around it really shifted. Autism was becoming less of a stigma. These parents were totally supportive of their kids, and were thrilled that piano lessons were going so well for them. They were so happy to have connected with me! This was great to hear, although I was initially puzzled.
Was I somehow a magnet for autistic kids? Or was it something about playing the piano that drew them? I knew I had some sensory processing issues that autistic people share, so I thought perhaps there was a connection there. I decided I needed to do a deep dives into the literature and see what I could come up with.
That deep dive ended up being a real turning point in my life. So many traits that were considered autistic just seemed like totally normal things to me (like doing deep dives into subjects that fascinate me!). Isn’t everyone like that, I thought? But no, most people actually do not read every book on a subject they are interested in. Many people just read an article or two and call it good…
At some point I started reading the more recent literature on autism in women, and there was a definite ‘aha!’ moment for me*. One audiobook, in particular, I could only take in small doses at a time because it felt like someone was reading aloud the most embarrassing moments of my life. At the same time, there were many autistic characteristics that I felt pride in having but had thought were part of my own unique personality, not part of a larger neurotype. There was a lot to digest.
From that point on, my pattern recognition skills (another autistic trait) were ignited and I began to notice other people around me who seemed to be similarly wired. In the next few years, there were some girls I noticed those traits in and I wondered. A few years went by, and then they were diagnosed as autistic or made that discovery on their own. Other people were starting to recognize the female faces of autism too, and that was encouraging. It was still striking to me how many of my piano students had at least some of these traits as compared to the general population, and over time I began to come up with some possibilities as to why.
There is a lot about taking piano lessons that could be appealing to an autistic person. Piano is arguably the least social instrument as it completely holds its own as a solo instrument. Music is filled with patterns, and we tend to excel in patterns. We work with a teacher one-on-one and don't have to filter out classroom chaos. But the biggest factor, in my opinion, is the sheet music. There are plenty of people who learn to play piano by ear, but they don’t tend to take lessons. Why would they? But if you take piano lessons, you learn how to read music, to learn it intellectually rather than intuitively.
As a neurodivergent coach, I often tell neurotypical people who are trying to better support an autistic person in their life that being autistic can feel like you are acting in a play that you have never seen the script for. It is a mystery to us how other people just seem to know their lines. We do all sorts of things to create different scripts throughout our day, from writing out detailed schedules to instilling a lot of repetition in our actions, to rehearsing and replaying conversations over and over in our heads, and we can seem rigid and inflexible when things don’t go as planned and we truly have to improvise.
This makes classical musical notation an ideal 'script' for an autistic person. Everything that you are supposed to do is written out, and there is nothing that you are supposed to somehow know to fill in that isn’t filled in for you. In fact, you are doing it wrong if you don’t follow all the instructions to a T. It’s exactly what we need.
Which makes me wonder if music notation (and written language too, for that matter) was invented by autistics. It is well known that much of the technology of our times is developed by people on the spectrum—think Elon Musk and Silicon Valley in general. Can it be possible that the technology of writing was also an innovation of autistic minds? Both writing and musical notation have been criticized for their rigidity, erasing the spontaneity and improvised nature of the Oral Tradition (although of course also giving us a ‘script’ that can be preserved forever, something Oral Tradition cannot offer). It is worth giving some consideration.
I do want to clarify that I am not saying that all pianists are autistic or that all autistic people are going to love playing the piano. It’s not that simple. But in a predominantly neurotypical world, we by and large go through life in a space that wasn’t designed for us. That’s a big part of the challenge. When it comes to taking piano lessons and learning to read music, it’s the other way around. We call the shots, and for once it’s everyone else who is doing it wrong when they don’t learn the script perfectly. It’s no wonder that so many of us end up feeling at home in front of the piano, secure in our certainty that this is a space where we belong.
*I may do another post later on about what I ultimately did when I made this discovery about myself, but I want to keep this post focused on the piano connection and not my personal diagnosis.