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

Introduction

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 [marchtoyourbeat.hk] 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.

 

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, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-translation/201803/autism-and-the-brain-what-does-the-research-say.

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, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/autism-spectrum-disorders.
  2. Wee, Rolando Y. “Autism Rates Around the World.” WorldAtlas, WorldAtlas, 7 Sept. 2018, www.worldatlas.com/articles/countries-with-the-highest-rates-of-autism.html.

3.“Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.

Benefits of Drumming

Benefits of Drumming

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180914084829.htm

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?

Online Case Study

Online Case Study

Drum Therapy for Autism | Autism Key

I read an article by Susan Moffitt, a mother of a (then) 15 year-old child diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a milder form of autism. Moffitt discussed how hitting a drum helped her child calm down from a tantrum instantly. In addition to helping her child cope with emotional meltdowns, Moffitt stated that drumming also helped his motor coordination skills and communication skills. In terms of motor coordination skills, drumming was beneficial to her son as it trained his vestibular movement and visual perception skills. In terms of communication skills, drumming was equally as beneficial as it was a task that involved turn taking, listening, problem solving, and following directions. I believe that this article was a testimony of how drumming could help those with autism. In the future, I want to be the one to use drumming as a tool to transform those with autism, similar to how drumming transformed Susan Moffitt’s son.

Brain Structure in Autism

Brain Structure in Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder: Autistic Brains vs Non-Autistic Brains (psycom.net)
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-018-0287-3

Sounds and the Spectrum: The Benefits of Music for Autistic Children – Percussion Play

The structure of the brain of someone with autism differs from that of someone without autism. Perhaps the most striking difference is that some regions of the autistic brain are not as strongly connected, causing those with autism to often struggle with tasks that require the simultaneous functioning of multiple parts of the brain (ie: communication.) A study shows that playing musical instruments helps strengthen those connections of the brain, which in turn can improve communication skills. I believe that the reason why drumming stimulates the connections within the brain is because drumming requires so many different skills, such as visual and auditory perception, following directions, and the coordination of the left and right hands.