International Meeting for Autism Research: Exploring Alexithymia in Autism Via Musically Induced Emotions

Exploring Alexithymia in Autism Via Musically Induced Emotions

Saturday, May 22, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
11:00 AM
R. J. Allen , Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, United Kingdom
P. Heaton , Psychology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, London, United Kingdom
E. Hill , Psychology Department, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, United Kingdom
Background: It has been reported that due to the social evolutionary origins of human music-making, individuals with autism – who by definition have social deficits – are unable fully to appreciate music, especially the emotional content of music. At the same time, alexithymia (difficulty in identifying and describing feelings) is known to be a common condition in autism, and it seemed to us that attempts to measure the ability in autism to experience emotion in music might have been confounded with difficulties with self-reporting those emotions. This suspicion was strengthened by an initial, qualitative study (Allen et. al, 2009) which showed no qualitative difference in the importance of music in the lives of high-functioning adults with autism, compared with published studies on the general population.
Objectives: our aim was to measure and compare physiological responses to a standard set of musical items and to a set of environmental noise items (as control condition) in autism and control groups, to see whether and how these responses differed independently of the confound of alexithymia. We aimed also to compare these results with the self-reports of emotional reactions to the music in the two groups, correlating this with conventional questionnaire measurements of alexithymia, to see how far alexithymia might explain any apparent autistic lack of responsiveness.
Methods: We used matched samples of 23 (autism group) and 24 (control) to measure galvanic skin responses to a set of 12 short music passages and 6 items of environmental noise. We also sought self-report of emotions evoked by the music, and administered standard normed questionnaires to measure alexithymia (TAS-20 and BVAQ). 
Results: the gsr responses of our autism group were significantly lower than controls. However, their responses to environmental noise were proportionately lower as well, amd when allowance was made for this, there was no group difference in relative responsiveness to music. The autism group did use significantly fewer words to describe their emotional responses to music compared with controls, but this correlated strongly with, and was explicable in terms of, their lower scores on factor 3 (“poor insight”) of the BVAQ.  
Conclusions: our results are consistent with the hypothesis that in autism, the basic physiological emotional component of their reactivity to music is functioning normally, but that their ability to translate and verbalize these reactions into conventional emotional language terms is reduced, precisely in line with the extent of their alexithymia. This has possible implications both for developing a more objective measure of at least one aspect of alexithymia, and for treatment of alexithymia through associative learning between labelled items of music and the corresponding induced physiological states.

Ref: Allen, R., Hill, E., & Heaton, P. (2009). 'Hath charms to soothe...'. An exploratory study of how high-functioning adults with ASD experience music. Autism, 13(1), 21-41.

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