Title: Autism and pitch processing splinter skills: A group and subgroup analysis.
Source:Heaton, P., Williams, K., Cummins, O., Happe, F. (2008). Autism and pitch processing splinter skills: A group and subgroup analysis. Autism, 12(2), 203-219. DOI: 10.1177/1362361307085270

Anecdotal as well as experimental studies have suggested that a sub-group of persons with autism have specific skills that are significantly above what is expected in the general population. Music abilities, and specifically pitch recognition, is one of these abilities. In this study the authors wanted to assess pitch recognition and memory in children (11 to 19 years of age) with Autism with various levels of intellectual abilities (as measured by a non-verbal test, namely: the Raven’s Progressive Matrices) and typically developing children of equal intellectual abilities. The first experiment involved the identification of pitch intervals (major fifths, thirds, etc). However, in order to make this test appropriate for non-musically trained children, the experiment used a computer screen to present a staircase of 8 steps representing the 8 standard tones of a western musical scale (think C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C). The children were trained to recognize each pitch as representing a specific step on the staircase by having a stick figure go up and down the stairs as the pitch changed. After training, an interval was presented (two tones at the same time) pairing the middle C (C4) with another tone. The children were presented with the stick figure anchored on the C step and were asked to move the stick figure to show the other step that represented the second sound in the interval. In the second study, a similar procedure was performed but no anchor was presented, so the children had to remember the pairings of tones to steps, which the authors suggested, was a better measure of traditional “perfect pitch”. The results indicated that as groups, the children with autism did not perform better than typically developing children. However, within the autism group, a subgroup of ‘statistical outliers” was noted. Outliers are data points that are so significantly different than expected based on the performance of the entire group, that statistically they represent anomalies in the data. Often these ‘outliers’ are interpreted as possible errors of measurements, data entry, etc, etc. But this is a great example of when outliers are not errors in the data and actually provide meaningful information. The outliers observed in this study represented a small group of children with autism that scored up to 5 standard deviations above the mean of all groups. None of these children had received music training or were receiving music therapy. More likely, these were children with perfect pitch and the rate of these children in the autism group was disproportional to what is expected in the general population. That is, the data suggest that children with autism are more likely than typically developing children to have significantly above average pitch recognition — perfect pitch.


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3 Responses to Autism and Perfect Pitch?

  1. madam ovary says:

    Why do abilities like this keep getting referred to as splinter skills? It seems like a value judgwment to me.

  2. Hello Madam,

    I was wondering the same thing this morning when reading the paper. I wonder what is the history of the use of that term? It sounds like one of those relics from the early research that people keep on using for no explicit reason. Maybe someone with more experience in the history of the term can help us. Cheers, Nestor.

  3. Perhaps you would like to hear some AutisMusic?

    Autism + Music Project

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