Autism: What is it?
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:
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 of they have multiple sensitivities. Many are hypersensitive to sounds. The intensity of their pain can be excruciating. Some indicators of that hypersensitivity are:
So, why are they hypersensitive to sounds? The reason lays 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 desensitize the bone conduction response, and make their ears to 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. Desensitizing the bone conduction reduces the hypersensitivity to sounds. It may appear paradoxical to use sounds to desensitize 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.
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 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 “listen” 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 enjoys 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.
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.
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