Sound Preferences in Autism

Sound Preferences in Autism

 Are the sound preferences of ASD individuals similar to those of neurotypical individuals? What sounds appeal most to those with ASD? It turns out that those with ASD have unique preferences for sound. From my experience drumming with ASD students, I saw they often looked uncomfortable when loud sounds were played. I also noticed that they didn’t feel comfortable with me speaking too quickly. Noticing this unique pattern, I began reading upon the sound preferences of those with ASD to better understand their auditory perceptions and adapt my curriculum to better suit their needs. 

Increased Sound Sensitivity and Decreased Sound Tolerance in ASD 

I was lucky enough to meet Associate Professor Sungchil YANG, an auditory neuroscientist at the City University of Hong Kong. When I discussed this phenomenon with him, he explained that those with autism are likely to exhibit increased sound sensitivity and decreased sound tolerance. 

He mentioned that those with autism exhibit a pattern of elevated neural activity in the auditory cortex and the thalamus. When faced with an auditory stimulus, their brains are more likely to have larger neural responses. This explains why they could be more sensitive in detecting subtle changes in pitch and be less tolerant of louder noises. 

How Loud is Too Loud? 

The loudness of a sound is measured using decibels (dB). For example, 0 dB represents the minimum auditory threshold, and 60 dB is the typical noise level for quiet office chatter. A neurotypical individual would typically find exposure to noises louder than 85 dB (similar to the loudness of heavy traffic) to be irritating. However, individuals with autism tend to have a much lower tolerance threshold; they would feel annoyed by sounds louder than 70 dB (similar to the noise level of a dishwasher.) 

Two Types of Decreased Sound Tolerance Disorders 

Decreased sound tolerance disorders are prevalent in individuals with autism. About two-fifths of autistic individuals are affected. Two of the most common types of decreased sound tolerance disorders are hyperacusis and misophonia. 

Hyperacusis is marked by physical pain in the ears, while misophonia is marked by an emotional reaction when exposed to loud or unpleasant sounds. Hyperacusis often involves sensitivity to general sounds, while misophonia involves the sensitivity of specific sounds (like chewing.) Both types of sound tolerance disorders can affect one’s emotional well being, sleep quality, and concentration ability. 

Recent Research into the Sound Preferences in Autism 

Although not yet widely researched, there is emerging evidence indicating certain types of music are more pleasing to those with ASD. A study by Cibrian et al. has experimented on the effects of pitch and melody on the emotions of children with autism. The research team found out that listening to low pitches evoke more positive emotions than listening to high pitches. This may support prior research about sound sensitivity to overly-high pitched sounds. Also, they found that listening to popular melodies are more beneficial to emotions than listening to repetitions of the same note. 


It is clear that individuals with autism have very specific requirements when it comes to music! Here are some takeaways: 

1) Softer instruments like the egg shakers, tambourines, and castanets could be a better alternative to the drums for students with ASD. 

2) Avoid instruments that produce sharp sounds or sounds that are too high-pitched. 

3) Speak slowly and clearly. Speaking too quickly may overwhelm the students. 

4) However, the one-size-fits-all approach never works. Some students have sound sensitivity, but others may not. When grouping students together, I have to refrain from putting two students with different sound preferences within the same group. 




Cibrian, Franceli L, et al. “A Step towards Identifying the Sound Preferences of Children with Autism: Proceedings of the 12th EAI International Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare.” ACM Digital Library, Association for Computing Machinery, 1 May 2018, 

Danesh, Ali A, et al. “Hyperacusis in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Audiology Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 14 Oct. 2021, 

Williams, Zachary J., et al. “A Review of Decreased Sound Tolerance in Autism: Definitions, Phenomenology, and Potential Mechanisms.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Elsevier Ltd., 4 Dec. 2020, 

Avocado – Design of the Second Prototype

Avocado - Design of the Second Prototype

 My vision of developing the Avocado came from my desire to build a percussion instrument that could help users relieve stress. For information about my first prototype, please visit 

After constructing my First Prototype, I identified two limitations with the design. Firstly, the styrofoam shell was too rigid. It failed to compress fully even when the user held tightly on the instrument. Secondly, the design was a two-dimensional sandwich structure, which meant the instrument could only be compressed in one direction. 

To improve on the Avocado, I decided to construct a second prototype. To solve the first problem, I decided to utilize soft sponges as the outer shell. I experimented with sponges of three different levels of rigidity. I allowed a sample of special needs students to feel those textures to discern which one they liked best. Over half of them preferred the sponge with medium hardness, so I went with this sponge as the outer shell. 

 The Design Process 
 The Actual Building of the Second Prototype 

I fashioned each half of the Avocado from a larger piece of styrofoam with a pair of scissors. I then hollowed out the inside to create a chamber. I filled the chamber with a mixture of large hollow brass beads and smaller stainless steel ball bearings. I figured that by using a large hollow bead, the sound produced would possess more resonance. I also experimented with different glues for putting the two halves together. When the shaker is shaken, the rattling sound is contributed by: 1) the sound of the small bearings colliding against each other, and 2) the sound of the small beads hitting against the large one. 

When the user becomes stressed and squeezes this prototype tightly, the inner chamber collapses and beads would be prevented from moving and colliding with the larger bead. Thus, no sound would be produced. With this new prototype, the shell is able to be compressed in any direction, making it a more effective stress reliever than the first prototype. Going forward for my third prototype, I hope to experiment with different types of beads, with varying degrees of hardness and materials, to optimize the quality of sound being produced. 

Testing the Second Prototype with the Students I Served 

Neuroplasticity – How Drumming Rewires the Autistic Brain

Neuroplasticity - How Drumming Rewires the Autistic Brain

 Playing the drums could significantly help children and teenagers with autism. Some benefits include improved gross and fine motor skills, concentration, emotional management, memory, impulse control, communication, and creativity. This article delves into some of the neural changes elicited by drumming that underpin some of these benefits. Through examining these findings, we would be able to better understand how drumming could be so beneficial. 

Below are some ways drumming can modify the brain: 

1. Increases Functional Connectivity in the Frontal Lobe Regions 

The frontal lobe, located at the forefront of our brains, is the region that governs decision making, creativity, communication, memory, and motor skills. Autistic children and adolescents often have abnormal frontal lobe development, explaining why they may sometimes struggle in these areas. 

Functional connectivity is a measure of how strongly the activity between two brain regions correlates over time. Research has shown that drumming increases functional connectivity within two regions of the frontal lobe: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (an area that governs alertness and attention) and the inferior frontal gyrus (an area that governs inhibition, attentional control, and speech.) As a result, the frontal lobe strengthens, in turn improving executive function. 

2. Engages the Mirror Neuron System 

The mirror neurons are a class of neurons that enables language comprehension, speech perception, imitation, and empathy. They fire when we perform actions or observe another person doing so. Psychologists believe abnormalities in the mirror neuron system are linked to autism. 

When one plays the drums, areas of the brain that are associated with imitation are activated. Those areas of the brain are densely populated with mirror neurons. The act of drumming links the perception of sounds with the action of striking the drum. The combination of auditory and motor stimulation results in the activation of mirror neurons. 

The activation of the mirror neuron system makes autistic teens more comfortable in sharing and expressing their emotions. It also helps them follow instructions more effectively. 

3. Increases Cortical Thickness of the Cerebellum 

The cerebellum is the portion of the brain located at the back of the head, responsible for balance, coordination, movement, and memory. Recent studies also supply evidence for the cerebellum’s role in emotion and cognition. 

Neuroscientists agree that a strong link exists between cerebellar damage and autism. For example, patterns of overactivity in the cerebellum are linked to patterns of fidgeting and hyperactivity. Studies have shown that drumming helps strengthen the cerebellum by increasing its cortical thickness and inducing plasticity. As a result, motor and impulse control abilities are enhanced. 

4. Allows Greater Hemispheric Synchronization 

Our brains are split into two parts: the left brain and the right brain. The left brain is responsible for analytical skills, while the right brain is responsible for creativity. The two parts of the brain are connected by nerve fibers called the corpus callosum which facilitate interhemispheric communication. 

Morphological studies indicate the corpus callosum is smaller in individuals with autism, causing weaker connections between the two hemispheres. As a result, skills that involve both hemispheres of the brain, like the ability to communicate or concentrate, are impaired. 

Drumming is a form of bi-lateral training; it exercises both the left and the right hands. Regular practice of hand-to-hand coordination increases the thickness of the corpus callosum, improving the communication between the two hemispheres. In addition, drumming synchronizes the brain waves of both hemispheres, allowing the brain to operate as a cohesive whole. In turn, feelings of happiness and creativity will flourish. 




Becker, Esther B E, and Catherine J Stoodley. “Autism Spectrum Disorder and the Cerebellum.” International Review of Neurobiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013,,implications%20beyond%20the%20motor%20domain. 

Bruchhage, Muriel, et al. “Cerebellar Involvement in Autism and ADHD.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018, 

Bruchhage, Muriel, et al. “Drum Training Induces Long-Term Plasticity in the Cerebellum and …” Scientific Reports, ResearchGate GmbH, June 2020, 

Cahart, Marie-Stephanie, et al. “The Effect of Learning to Drum on Behavior and Brain Function in Autistic Adolescents.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy of Science, 31 May 2022, 

Kilner, J M, and R N Lemon. “What We Know Currently about Mirror Neurons.” Current Biology : CB, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Dec. 2013,,act%20performed%20by%20another%20individual. 

Margari, Lucia, et al. “Frontal Lobe Metabolic Alterations in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A 1H-Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Study.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 July 2018,,The%20involvement%20of%20the%20frontal%20lobe%20in%20the%20neurobiology%20of,are%20both%20compromised%20in%20ASD. 

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Corpus Callosum.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 9 Apr. 2009, 

Wan, Catherine Y, et al. “From Music Making to Speaking: Engaging the Mirror Neuron System in Autism.” Brain Research Bulletin, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 May 2010, 

Wolff, Jason J., et al. “Altered Corpus Callosum Morphology Associated with Autism over the First 2 Years of Life.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 3 May 2015, 

From Jamming to the Avocado

From Jamming to the Avocado

A Short Narrative of My Musical Journey with those Affected by Autism

Alvin Wong

December 30, 2021


What is there in the sound of a beat? As a drummer myself, I tell you it can do wonders! I have experienced that through my musical journey with friends affected by autism. I want to share with you what I have learned from them, and how I have further developed my initiative to reach the larger community.

There is emerging research which indicates drumming improves motor skills, concentration and communication, and it also benefits those with autism. I was particularly inspired by Different Drummer by Jeff Strong and The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, and I felt even I could do something to help those around me. My school community includes students with autism. With my headmaster’s blessing, I started group percussion sessions with those students in 2019. I led regular sessions with different musical activities like drumming to a backing track and drum rolling. Besides drums, other percussion instruments were also used, such as egg shakers, boom whackers, tambourines, wood blocks, and castanets. Many were selected with a view to capturing my friends’ attention. Whilst I am no therapist, I noticed my friends were generally more engaged when playing instruments that were softer in texture and quieter in sound. The latter could be attributed to their dislike of overly loud noises. Indeed, research suggests that loud noises above 70 decibels would cause discomfort to autistic people. On the other hand, some instruments would help calm them, like the African drums which could make the most mesmerizing sound. Apparently our brains are rhythmically organized, and they pulsate with the sound we hear. So a slow pulsating sound would help calm the listener. Anyhow, regardless of the activity or instrument, my friends were noticeably more excited when playing percussion music than attending their regular classes! Some of them were literally dancing to the music. Even the timid ones were gently swaying or nodding their heads to the beat. On several occasions, they were having so much fun that they did not want to leave after the sessions had ended.


Founding of March To Your Beat and Summer Outreach

Encouraged by the positive responses from my friends, I wanted the initiative to benefit a wider audience. So I founded March To Your Beat [] in 2020 as a platform not only for sharing what I do but also for attracting like-minded people to join the cause. With the help of volunteers, this initiative was taken to other special needs schools in Hong Kong during the summer holidays.

Tinkling with technologies and inventing instruments

As March To Your Beat started to take shape, the music sessions also took on more sophistication. I began to look for ways to measure the benefits exhibited by my friends to test the assumption from my initial observations that music would benefit them. In this regard, I turned to accessible technology. For example, I used motion sensors to evaluate motor coordination, and emotion sensors to track mood, heart rate, and stress levels. Decibel meters were also used to control the sound level of the music sessions to prevent participants’ discomfort.

My tinkling with technologies was fun but results were mixed. However, a common observation I made was that the participants would get stressed easily. One of our activities involved using egg shakers to help them relax, so I wondered how I could perhaps incorporate what I had learned about sound and texture into a better version of the egg shaker. I also felt the soft squeezability of a stress ball might be useful. So I invented and designed the Avocado. I envisioned the device to be slightly larger than an egg shaker for better grip, but the outer shell should be soft like a stress ball. The cross-section of the device would resemble an avocado, hence the name. The flesh of the avocado would be that squeezy material of a stress ball. The seed would be a collapsible air chamber containing the beads that would make the sound when shaken. If a person is stressed and squeezes the Avocado too tightly, then it will make little or no sound. It is almost as if the instrument reacts to the user’s stress by saying, “Relax, if you wish to be heard!” For the prototype, I halved a polystyrene egg, and hollowed out the center for encasing a collapsible air chamber, which I salvaged from a squeaky toy hammer. The rim of the halved polystyrene egg was lined with springs to help re-inflate the air chamber when not squeezed. The two halves were then stuffed inside a latex balloon to hold them together.

The Making of the Prototype

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The prototype may be crude but the idea is there. Obviously it would benefit from further R&D by incorporating motion sensors or other technologies. The prototype could also be improved so that it could be squeezed in all directions, i.e. 3D rather than the current 2D sandwich structure of a polystyrene shell.

Pitching at UNITAR and Future of March to Your Beat

I was recently able to speak at the Youth Ambassador program of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. There, I met an ambitious cohort of students, many of whom were interested in joining March to Your Beat as potential partners, both in Hong Kong and abroad. Over the next year, I hope to inspire more like-minded youth musicians to contribute their respective skills to uplift the special needs community.


Sounds of Nature

Sounds of Nature

 To those with ASD, listening to the sounds of nature is a tool for healing. Whether the calming ripples of water or the frightening bouts of thunder, listening to these natural sounds brings forth immense benefits to our mental health. According to an article by Colorado State University, the sounds of nature will help decrease pain, lower stress, improve mood and enhance cognitive performance. They say that listening to the sounds of water are effective in improving positive emotions and health outcomes, while bird sounds combat stress and annoyance. 

Currently, sound therapy is a popular mode of treatment for anxiety in ASD. I am incorporating an element of natural sounds into my drumming exercises for the students. 

Below are some possible activities to use to mimic or recreate the sounds of nature: 

Sound of Wind: Have one towel or thick cloth per two students. Each student will grab the towel on either end, and will shake the towel vigorously to create a “whoosh” sound, similar to that of howling wind. This exercise will enhance nonverbal communication and help tension release. 

Sound of Raindrops: Have students fill their water bottles with gravel. Then, have the students gently shake their bottles. The collective rattling sound will resemble the sound of raindrops. However, this must be done with a large group of students for the sound effect to work. 

Sound of Thunder: Grab a thick box, and fill it with soybeans. To recreate the sound of thunder, give the box a sudden vertical upward thrust. The rumbling sound of the soybeans will be close to the sound we hear during thunderstorms. 

Works Cited: 

Colorado State University. “Want to Improve Your Health? Head to a National Park, and Absorb the Sounds.”, Science X Network, 22 Mar. 2021, 

Session with Roy

Session with Roy

 Today, I met percussionist Rodger Roy Joseph via his drumming demo on zoom. I, along with about ten or twelve others, were the sample “participants.” Up till this point, I have never conducted a session online before. Conducting a drumming session online for special needs students had two major difficulties. Firstly, students wouldn’t have any actual drums to play with at home. Lots of improvisation would be needed to make those sessions successful. Secondly, engaging the students would be difficult as there would be no face-to-face contact. Seeing Roy conduct a session online for us was a breath of fresh air. 

Roy started his session by telling us to grab any hard surface, which would be the “drum” for the session. I chose to grab my school Chemistry textbook. Together, we started drumming along to his little chant “How’re You’re Doing!” Despite the slight lags here and there, and even some unmuted participants (I was one of them), I was pretty amazed at our ability to form a mini-percussion ensemble and have a good time on a calm Tuesday evening. Seeing Roy’s great enthusiasm for this subject, it was no surprise when I contacted him later to find out he already has had much experience drumming with special needs students. 

Here are several characteristics of his leadership I learned from when watching his demo: 

Charisma – Roy exhibited passion and exuded lots of energy when leading his demo. He seemed like he was genuinely interested in us having a great time. 

Patience – Since this was the first time we learned his exercises, we made a mistake in not entering correctly the first time we played together. He was patient in the sense that he was able to clarify instructions for us to understand better. 

Flexibility – Even though an online session wasn’t ideal, he was still able to develop a solid agenda for an online session. 

View more of his work via this link: 

Alvin Wong – A Youth Perspective on Bringing Back Better after COVID-19

Alvin Wong - A Youth Perspective on Bringing Back Better after COVID-19

We cannot even begin to talk about building back better from the pandemic before addressing the importance of improving emotional health. Arguably, awareness of emotional health and wellbeing have never been fully appreciated until the emergence of COVID-19. The pandemic has brought stress and discomfort upon our lives. The social and economic hardships we already face have been further exacerbated during this time. As the world recovers from this pandemic, we, as youth, must make swift, but steady progress to advocate the importance of our emotional wellbeing, as this is a crucial step to building back a better world. 

I believe that the first step to achieving this would be for us to realize the prevalence of anxiety and depression around the world. According to data from the CDC, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety, while 3.2% of children aged 3-17 have diagnosed depression. Anxiety and depression have both been on a steady incline in the past decade, and have, without doubt, become primary issues of concern during this pandemic. I encourage my fellow youths around the world to advocate for an improved emotional support system in two ways:

Youths should advocate on using our natural environment to boost emotional wellbeing. Many studies have shown that having a plant near our workstations helps reduce anxiety and improve attention spans! One simple way for us, as youth, to contribute would be to encourage our schools to plant greens within classrooms. This not only benefits the students, but also the teachers who nurture them! 

Music is another important tool to enhance our mental and emotional health. We have all probably heard of the saying that “music calms the soul.” It turns out that music actually has many other benefits, such as improving concentration, strengthening memory, and boosting academic performance. I encourage youth who can play musical instruments to explore and practice music therapy, which is basically playing music as a means of therapy for those with emotional needs. This can greatly benefit those with anxiety and depression.

We have an ambitious agenda to improve our world after COVID-19. As youth, we have the responsibility to address the issue of emotional health, an issue that would otherwise grow in prevalence and seriousness in the future. Apart from the environment and music, there has got to be many other possible ways to enhance emotional health. As we continue to churn out great ideas, we need to adopt what I call the “2030 vision”. This is a vision that requires us to look to the future rather than the past as we make changes that will bring back better to the world.

For Those with ASD: Music is Indeed a Powerful Language

For Those with ASD: Music is Indeed a Powerful Language

Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Music — what do they all have in common? They’re all languages! Yes — music is also a language! Unlike Greek, Latin, and Chinese, which all convey thoughts and emotions through words, music conveys thoughts and emotions through rhythms and melodies.

Often, those with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) find it difficult to communicate verbally. There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, our actions are all heavily guided upon our brain’s reward system. For neurotypical individuals, social interactions are rewarding. On the contrary, those with autism don’t find social interactions as rewarding as neurotypical individuals do. Their lack of motivation for social interactions is a possible explanation for why those with ASD find it harder to socially interact. Secondly, those with ASD are known to have an overactive amygdala. In essence, the amygdala is the part of the brain which is associated with the perception of emotions. The overaction of the amygdala often causes those with ASD to perceive social situations as daunting and unpredictable. The unpredictability of social situations is another possible explanation for why those with autism find it challenging to communicate verbally.

The thought of face-to-face communication sometimes pulls those with ASD apart from one another. However, music is a special language that draws them together. For example, drumming in large groups is a way of expressing happiness to other people. I have been facilitating drumming sessions with large groups of ASD students, and I was surprised at how the power of music can bring them so close together. This shows how the sound of the drum can at times be an extremely effective medium of communication. There is a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Now, I believe that for those with autism, a single note of music is indeed more powerful than a thousand spoken words.

Additional Information for Reference:

  1. Stavropoulos, Katherine K.M. K.M. “Autism and the Brain: What Does the Research Say?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Mar. 2018,

Autism — an overlooked issue?

Autism — an overlooked issue?

Our world has addressed many important issues, but Autism Spectrum Disorder is one which is perhaps overlooked. In essence, autism is a developmental condition characterized by a lack of communication and social interaction. People with autism tend to exhibit repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. They often get overwhelmed by social situations because they struggle to understand how others think and feel.

According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 160 children has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism is especially prevalent in Hong Kong; roughly 1 in 27 people in Hong Kong are diagnosed with autism. In other countries, the rates of autism are lower. For example, the autism rate in Brazil is 1 in 368 people, while the autism rate in Portugal is 1 in 1,087 people. However, the lower autism rates in Brazil and Portugal do not necessarily mean that autism is any less prevalent in those countries. The huge difference in autism rates is likely due to the underdiagnosis in certain countries. This means that the global autism rate is very likely to be greater than the reported 1 in 160 children.

The United States has been raising awareness of autism in the past two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US autism rate back in 2000 was 1 in 150, while the current autism rate in the US is 1 in 54. Whilst awareness for autism has been increasing over recent years, there is still much work that needs to be done for those with autism. A way to help raise awareness is to promote medical knowledge of autism. This will most certainly lead to an increase in diagnosis. Ongoing counselling by psychologists is also crucial to ensure adequate support for those with this developmental condition.

In addition to counselling, music therapy has emerged as another form of non-invasive treatment for autism. There are several benefits of this therapy. Firstly, it provides a nonverbal way of communication, which makes social interactions less intimidating. Secondly, it helps train collaboration skills without the need for physical proximity or eye contact. Thirdly, the treatment can also be fun and entertaining for the recipients. Indeed, the development of music therapy can prove to be pivotal in addressing the increasing autism rate worldwide.

Additional Information for Reference:

  1. “Autism Spectrum Disorders.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 7 Nov. 2019,
  2. Wee, Rolando Y. “Autism Rates Around the World.” WorldAtlas, WorldAtlas, 7 Sept. 2018,

3.“Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 Sept. 2020,

Benefits of Drumming

Benefits of Drumming

According to a research project led by the University of Chichester and University Centre Hartpury, drumming for 60 minutes a week could benefit those diagnosed with autism. The research method involved students from the Milestone School in Gloucester partaking in a 10-week drumming session. During the course of those 10 weeks, the students were found to show improvements in rhythm and timing. In addition to drumming-related skills, the students also showed improvements at school and at home. For example, there was an improvement in the students’ behavior at school, an enhancement in their communication skills, a boost in motor control, and an increase in attention span when doing homework. This article was extremely informative. However, I still have some questions I want to address. For example, drum therapy comes in many forms (there are so many types of drums and so many different genres of music to play); is there a particular form of drum therapy that is more useful than others when it comes to treating autism? Another question I have is related to the time of 60 minutes; why is 60 minutes a week the optimal time for drum therapy? Why can’t it be more or less?