What is Autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that usually becomes evident during the first three years of life. It occurs in approximately 15 out of every 10,000 births. It is four times more likely to show up in boys than in girls. It’s been found throughout the world in all racial, ethnic and social backgrounds.
It’s also a sensory integration disorder and a communication disorder. As we have seen before, the Tomatis Method can make positive and lasting changes in both of these areas.
Tomatis and Autism
The Tomatis Method is not a cure for autism. We cannot perform miracles, and we do not promise them. However, our listening therapy can greatly improve the life of many autistic people, by attenuating the symptoms. It is often used in conjunction with other therapies.
By stimulating the auditory system, and through it, by stimulating the brain, the Tomatis Method has been able to reduce the autistic symptoms to varying degrees. Each autistic person is different and may respond differently to the program. In some cases we see the first results within a few weeks, whereas in others it may take longer. Also, progress is never a straight line. There are still good days and bad days. But the trend is often upward, especially when you look back over a period of a few months.
In many cases we have seen improvements in the following areas:
- Decreased hypersensitivity to sound – They will be able to better deal with noise. As one mother said: “He can now hear the vacuum cleaner or the mixer without losing it”. They may start to connect with what happens around them, because they feel less threatened by the sounds that surround them As a result, they may have less temper tantrums and show less repetitive behaviour. They may also start paying more attention. One of the parents said of her autistic daughter: “She is more tuned in. She pays more attention”.
- Reduced tactile defensiveness – As they become less tactile defensive, their desire to reach out will increase and they may start to interact with others. This makes them more social. They may also become more affectionate. A child may come and sit on your lap, expecting to be held and cuddled.
- Improved language skills – For autistic children who do not speak, receptive language is likely to improve. They may try to vocalize more and start to babble, experimenting with their voice. For autistic children with more developed language skills, the expressive language may improve. They may use longer sentences, and find more appropriate words to describe things. The may also use personal pronouns, like “I” and “You” more correctly, instead of referring to themselves in the third person. Better mastery of language leads to an increased desire to communicate.
- Improved appreciation for food. less picky in what they like to eat – Those who are picky eaters may start to accept a greater variety of foods, including foods with different textures.
- Better self-image – Once they start to connect with their voice, their self-image will start to improve. They know that they have a voice!
- Improved social skills – They may start to look for contact and respond better to others. They may start to follow directions better. They may start to initiate contacts.
- Less aggressive behaviour – They may become less aggressive towards others and to themselves. They may start to inflict less injury to themselves and show less repetitive behaviour.
- Better eye contact – They may start looking you in the eyes and comprehend what you are saying more readily. “She looks people in the face now”, one parent said. They may start paying more attention to what they see. As one mother said: “When we’re driving, he now looks out of the window. he never did that before.”
When autistic people are hypersensitive to sounds, we try to treat this first. When this stumbling block is taken away, we can help them to start listening better. It also opens the way to improve sensory integration. These two elements, improved listening skills and better sensory integration, are the building blocks to develop their communication skills.
Reducing hypersensitivity to sounds
People with autism often suffer unbearable pain because they have multiple sensitivities. Many are hypersensitive to sounds. The intensity of their pain can be excruciating. Some indicators of that hypersensitivity are:
- covering their ears with their hands to protect themselves from the incoming sounds
- bursting into huge temper tantrums due to the frustration of having to deal with the constantly incoming sounds
- repeating the same words, phrases or sentences perhaps as a way to soothe or stabilise themselves in the face of the barrage of intense and confusing sounds.
So, why are they hypersensitive to sounds? The reason lies in the way we listen. We all listen both with our ears and with our bodies. Our skin and our bones are excellent sound conductors. Our whole body responds to sounds. However, unlike most people, many autistic children (and adults) listen predominantly with their bodies. Sounds picked up by the body go directly to the brain, without being filtered. That means that the irrelevant background noise is not filtered out. So, many autistic people are continuously assaulted with sounds.
When people listen predominantly with their ears, the sounds are filtered to reduce its intensity. Also, they are able to filter out all the background noises, so that they can tune in to what is really important. Many autistic people do not have the ability to filter out background noise and tune in to what really matters.
So, when we work with autistic people that are hypersensitive to sounds, our first goal is to desensitise the bone conduction response, and make their ears become the main entrance to sounds. That way, the sounds can be processed in the correct way. We’ll do it by having them listen to gated music through a special headphone that is equipped with a vibrator. Through the vibrator they’ll listen with their bodies, at the same time as they listen with their ears. The “music” is coming first to the vibrator, and several milliseconds later to the ears.
Over time, our clients will adjust to listening primarily with their ears. Desensitising the bone conduction reduces the hypersensitivity to sounds. It may appear paradoxical to use sounds to desensitise someone who is sensitive to sounds, but it is an efficient, gentle and non-intrusive way to begin to alleviate some of the problems that come with autism.
As all our senses are interrelated, reducing hypersensitivity to sounds often results in reducing other sensitivities, such as tactile defensiveness and aversions of foods that have different textures.
Tomatis discovered that we can only produce a sound, if we hear that sound well. Hence, self-listening is the basis of speaking. So, paradoxically, it is the ear that controls speech and checks all its parameters: intensity, flow, articulation, etc… Self-listening is thus the basis of communicating with others.
When we talk, we unconsciously monitor our speech through self-listening. That means that we have to have the ability to zero in on the sound coming from outside (mom talking to me) and/or on the sounds that are coming from within (my own sounds when I talk). As we have seen above, many autistic children tune-out what comes from the outside, to protect themselves from the bombardment of stimuli that threaten them. They also tune-out what is coming from within, possibly for the same reasons. They seem as disconnected from the world around them as they are disconnected from themselves. Communication thus is very difficult.
The Tomatis Program tries to help autistic children to develop self-listening to foster communication. In that context, the vocal exercises are key in trying to achieve that goal. The children are asked to talk into a microphone. Through a feedback loop, they immediately perceive their voice coming back to their right ear, which is the ear that allows for a faster and more precise processing of language. The voice not only comes back to the ears but also to the bones, thanks to a vibrator situated on the skull. If a child is severely autistic and has no language, we still open the microphone to try to capture his babbling or any vocalization that he or she may produce.
The vocal exercises are often difficult for autistic children, especially at the beginning. Often, they are afraid of their own voice and immediately become silent. It takes gentle prodding to help them overcome gradually their anxiety. Their reaction is easily understandable: first, this is new, and everything new brings fear. Second, it is the first time that they have “listened” to their own voice. Up till now, they probably didn’t connect themselves with their voice, because that requires having a sense of self, and a perception of one’s body, both of which are weak in most autistic children.
The bone vibration is key to developing a better perception of the body, the basis for the self to develop. We have often observed autistic children who try to swallow the microphone during the vocal exercises. It provides them with an intense vibration that reverberates throughout their body. It gives them an opportunity to “feel” their body. Some enjoy the experience tremendously, but a normal adult could not stand the intensity of the bone vibration that it generates.
This phenomenon in itself is very normal: the simple fact of speaking creates vibrations throughout our body, but we are most of the time unaware and undisturbed by it. In his book on opera-singing, (L’Oreille et la Voix, not published in English), Tomatis explains in details how singers must be able to control their bodies all the way down to the smallest proprioceptive sensation, to produce a sound of perfect quality Singer, he insists, need to learn to play of their body as if it were an instrument. Likewise, autistic child have to learn to use their body as an instrument to initiate language. The vocal exercises we do, make it possible for them to “feel” their body, to build their ability to produce sounds, and this may lead to language.
By giving them the ability to produce sounds in a controlled way, we open the way for them to develop their sense of self.
As we know it well, “finding one’s voice” is finding oneself.
- expanded articulation of words
- increased expressive language
- more developed receptive language
- more sharpened listening skills
- better voice control
- growing sense of self develops
- deeper awareness of the whole body
It is clear that reducing hypersensitivity and regulating sensory-integration are key steps in helping reconnect the autistic child or person to their families and their environment, allowing them to move outside of their protective shells. While the Tomatis Listening Program primarily focuses on listening and audio vocal exercises, other senses are changing simultaneously.