Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The lost art and the hidden treasure

Jennifer Bingham
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


It is the moment we catch ourselves wishing someone had mentioned how many pieces were in this puzzle that we look up to find progress.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.

The puzzle box is empty and the pieces are scattered across the table. After all, a puzzle was never meant to stay in the box. The trouble begins when a few pieces have fallen off the table. The excitement of seeing the purpose and design of the puzzle distract from the realization that there are pieces missing, unnoticed in the shadows. These are pieces that could pull the entire puzzle together; the pieces that, when missing, cause frustration, frantic searching (obsession even), and frequent breakdowns. These missing pieces prolong the process, steal the joy, and distract from the purpose.

Welcome to the world of autism — a place of innovation. Innovation because some of the greatest minds in history embraced “outside the box” thinking to influence culture in ways the status quo never could. It was messy — though they did not seem to care. It was emotional — though they did not always notice. It was intense — though they found vigor in the fixation. It was lonely — though they seldom recognized that they had an audience.

The world was watching though, and has recorded in the annals of history the indelible mark of these individuals. Many inspiring people found a home on the autism spectrum long before it was labeled.1

Their lives were so unique that just the mention of one part of their name draws appreciation for their contributions to science, math, art, music, history, leadership, or technology. The innovation of these individuals changed the pattern on the fabric of our culture.

Often family, friends, and acquaintances recorded the social and emotional struggles, developmental delays, fixated behavior and repetition, stringent routine, and struggle to maintain relationships.2 Many of history’s greatest names struggled with school and stories of amazing temper tantrums survive to be told. So many brilliant minds — Michelangelo, Newton, Mozart, Jefferson, Lincoln, Einstein — maintained their relationships like they managed their finances — poorly. Their behavior seemed absentminded and basic life skills like eating and grooming were often forgotten.

Yet they also thrived.

So what was their secret? It seems imperative to discover the answer, since almost 2% of the population is touched in some way by autism. Without a doubt, each successful person with autism had someone who could see the treasure inside. Whether family, friend, or mentor, those who had someone to help with the ordinary enabled them to pursue the extraordinary — a generally forgotten person who kept notes.

Samuel Gridley Howe and his wife Julia Ward Howe were the unlikely power couple who started peeling back the layers of autism in the mid-1800s. Advocating for those individuals who were “crammed into almshouses, kept in cages, left to wander unwashed and uncared for,” they opened the door for education. Samuel Howe’s copious, detailed notes described the strange phenomenon society did not know what to do with: a physically perfect but socially awkward child with poor verbal skills. He chronicled the savant-like nature and echolalia of many of his students. This same man who created a safe environment for Helen Keller to thrive in now fought to educate individuals with what we would now call autism.3 Howe’s efforts proved that people with autism could learn and thrive with support.

Today, many supportive families are looking for help. As a society, we are beginning to provide help in putting the missing pieces of the puzzle together. Teams of professionals work with parents to create and implement individualized education plans in the least restrictive environment for each child with autism — the education piece.

Support networks build sounding boards and forums for communication about the success of different interventions. They are places to find hope and share the weight of crushing disappointments — the supportive resource piece.

Occupational therapy addresses fine motor and sensory needs; speech therapy addresses language and communication; and applied behavior therapy helps identify the purpose of the behavior and suggests appropriate replacement behaviors. These types of therapy have helped parents and individuals with autism confront social struggles — the social piece.4

Physical therapy can help with gross motor needs while nutritional therapy may help underlying health needs — the physical piece.5

Medication is an often-discussed topic and may be helpful in treating concomitant ADHD symptoms, depression, anxiety, or mood disorders. This piece is confusing because it is part of a double-sided puzzle. It helps the individual, who happens to also be diagnosed with autism, address the struggles of another diagnosis — the emotional piece.6

And so the puzzle pieces are piling up on the table. How should all these options be coordinated in the life of a unique individual who places high value on routine and repetition? There are so many pieces to consider and intuitively, we know some of them are not even on the table.

What is lacking now that was foundational before?

Music is one thread that was woven through the lives of each of many individuals on the autism spectrum and may have been a cathartic experience for those who struggled to express emotion. Michelangelo dabbled in it.7 Newton theorized about it.8 Mozart created it. Dickinson collected it.9 Darwin’s routine was influenced by it.10 Jefferson called it “the favorite passion of his soul.”11 Lincoln was deeply moved by it.12 Einstein used it to brainstorm.13 Warhol produced it.14 Jobs’ passion for it made it digitally accessible to the rest of us.15

Music has the power to move and inspire. In bygone eras, music was not just background noise; it was the main event. It represented culture and refinement. Our instant society has traded entrainment for entertainment. What if the lost art of taking time to appreciate music could unveil the hidden treasure of the soul?

An individual with autism is a treasure with unimaginable hidden potential. Though there is great debate about emotional intelligence and the person with autism, it has been concluded that we need tools to help individuals with autism “understand their own and other people’s emotions.”16 Could music help unlock this hidden potential?

Let history speak. Hans Christian Anderson once said, “Where words fail, music speaks,” which complements the clues left by the Psalmist who recorded, “I…solve riddles with inspiration of the harp.”17 Tolstoy called music “the shorthand of emotion.” Victor Hugo eloquently stated, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to keep silent,” while more recently Keith Richards suggested, “Music is the language that doesn’t speak in particular words. It speaks in emotion.”18 If music does give voice to emotion, could it demystify it for those who struggle to process it?

Science seems to suggest this is a very real possibility because of the brain’s neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to make physical change given enough consistent, repetitive input.19 (“Consistent, repetitive”—those are safe words in the world of a person with autism!) Understanding this scientific discovery, and gleaning the importance of the role of music in the lives of so many on the spectrum, has given birth to programs like the Listening Program by Advanced Brain Technologies. Programs like this use acoustically modified music, focusing on various musical frequencies, to elicit physical brain change in a participant. Research studies have shown favorable responses for individuals with autism.20 Music therapy has the unique ability to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously.21 Temple Grandin, an eloquent voice for autism, describes music and math thinkers as those who think in patterns.22 Music becomes a riddle to unravel, engaging the mind, and introducing the emotions of the music.

Finding the pattern for the pieces in front of us is worthwhile but tiresome work. Therapy strengthens the body and helps with social interactions. Medication can remove other obstacles from the table so that therapies can be more effective. But music can slip seamlessly into the daily routine. It has the power to inspire change. Almost like an emotional dialysis, music can wash over the listener and move without words to inspire creative thought.

And although there are many pieces to the puzzle, there is also real progress. We watch in awe as the one we love, without a word, begins using the puzzle pieces to create an abstract work of art. Sometimes the methods are messy and unconventional. Sometimes it is emotionally draining. Sometimes it is intense and lonely. Sometimes it takes longer, but in the end, history remembers the outcome, not the process. And while we wait to find the other pieces, we recognize that music could be the lost art that helps unlock the hidden treasure of those who will someday shape the future.


End Notes:

  1. “History’s 30 Most Inspiring People on the Autism Spectrum,” Applied Behavior Analysis, https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/historys-30-most-inspiring-people-on-the-autism-spectrum/.
  2. “DSM-5 Criteria,” Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/dsm-5-criteria.
  3. “The Early History of Autism in America,” Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/early-history-autism-america-180957684/.
  4. “Top 8 Autism Therapies – Reported by Parents,” Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/top-8-autism-therapies-reported-parents.
  5. “Helping your Child with Autism Thrive,” Help Guide. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/autism-learning-disabilities/helping-your-child-with-autism-thrive.htm/.
  6. “When to Call in the Meds,” ADDitude. https://www.additude.com/autism-medication-treatment-help-parenting/.
  7. “9 Things you May not Know about Michelangelo,” History. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-michelangelo.
  8. “Newton’s Color Theory, ca. 1665,” The Scientist. https://www.the-scientist.com/foundations/newtons-color-theory-ca-1665-31931.
  9. “MY Business is to Sing: Emily Dickinson, Musician and Poet,” New York Public Library. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/12/09/my-business-sing-emily-dickinson.
  10. “Darwin, Music and Evolution: New Insights from Family Correspondence on the The Descent of Man,” Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1029864916631794.
  11. “Music: ‘The Favorite Passion of my Soul’,” Monticello. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/a-day-in-the-life-of-jefferson/a-delightful-recreation/jefferson-and-music/.
  12. “Music in Lincoln’s Whitehouse,” The Whitehouse Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/music-in-lincolns-white-house.
  13. “Six Interesting Musical Facts about Albert Einstein,” CMUSE. https://www.cmuse.org/interesting-musical-facts-about-albert-einstein/.
  14. “10 Times Andy Warhol Left His Stamp on Music,” Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/pride/8214697/andy-warhol-music-influence-rupauls-drag-race.
  15. “Steve Jobs’ Music Vision – How the Apple CEO Transformed the Industry,” Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/steve-jobs-music-vision-235915/.
  16. “People with Autism can Read Emotions and Feel Empathy,” Scientific America. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/people-with-autism-can-read-emotions-feel-empathy1/
  17. Psalm 49:4, New Living Translation.
  18. “100 famous and inspirational music quotes,” CMUSE. https://www.cmuse.org/100-famous-and-inspirational-music-quotes/
  19. “MIT Scientists Discover Fundamental Rule of Brain Plasticity,” http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-scientists-discover-fundamental-rule-of-brain-plasticity-0622
  20. “The Effectiveness of Auditory Stimulation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Case-Control Study,” IJTR. https://s3.amazonaws.com/abt-media/pdf/science/ASD_TLP_Case_control_study.pdf.
  21. “Benefits of Music Therapy for Autistic Children,” Nurse Journal. https://nursejournal.org/community/the-benefits-of-music-therapy-for-autistic-children/.
  22. “Thinking in Pictures,” Grandin. http://www.grandin.com/inc/visual.thinking.html.



  1. Andrews, Evan. “9 Things You May not Know about Michelangelo.” History. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-michelangelo (accessed April 10, 2019).
  2. Applied Behavior Analysis. “History’s 30 Most Inspiring People on the Autism Spectrum.” Applied Behavior Analysis. https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/historys-30-most-inspiring-people-on-the-autism-spectrum/ (accessed April 10, 2019).
  3. Autism Speaks. “DSM-5 Criteria.” Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/dsm-5-criteria (accessed April 12, 2019).
  4. Bannan, Nicholas. “Darwin, Music and Evolution: New Insights from Family Correspondence on the The Descent of Man.” Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1029864916631794 (accessed April 10, 2019).
  5. Bertin, Mark. “When to Call in the Meds.” ADDitude. https://www.additude.com/autism-medication-treatment-help-parenting/ (accessed April 12, 2019).
  6. Boziwick, George. “MY Business is to Sing: Emily Dickinson, Musician and Poet.” New York Public Library. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2014/12/09/my-business-sing-emily-dickinson (accessed April 10, 2019).
  7. Brewer, Rebecca and Jennifer Murphy. “People with Autism can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy.” Scientific America. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/people-with-autism-can read-emotions-feel-empathy1/ (accessed April 12, 2019).
  8. CMUSE. “100 Famous and Inspirational Music Quotes.” CMUSE. https://www.cmuse.org/100-famous-and-inspirational-music-quotes/ (accessed April 12, 2019).
  9. Daw, Stephen. “10 Times Andy Warhol Left his Stamp on Music.” Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/pride/8214697/andy-warhol-music-influence-rupauls-drag-race (accessed April 10, 2019).
  10. Donovan, John and Caren Zucker. “The Early History of Autism in America.” Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/early-history-autism-america-180957684/ (accessed April 12, 2019).
  11. Gee, Bryan, Kelly Thomson, Aaron Pierce, Megan Topin and Jennifer Holst. “The Effectiveness of Auditory Stimulation on Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Case-Control Study.” (Online: International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2015). https://s3.amazonaws.com/abt-media/pdf/science/ASD_TLP_Case_control_study.pdf (accessed April 12, 2019).
  12. Grandin, Temple. “Thinking in Pictures.” Grandin. http://www.grandin.com/inc/visual.thinking.html (accessed April 12, 2019).
  13. Head, Tom. “Six Interested Musical Facts about Albert Einstein.” CMUSE. https://www.cmuse.org/interesting-musical-facts-about-albert-einstein/ (accessed April 10, 2019).
  14. Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015.
  15. Kirk, Elise K. “Music in Lincoln’s White House.” The White House Historical Association. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/music-in-lincolns-white-house (accessed April 10, 2019).
  16. Knopper, Steve. “Steve Jobs’ Music Vision—How the Apple CEO Transformed the Industry.” Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/steve-jobs-music-vision-235915/ (accessed April 10, 2019).
  17. Monticello. “Music: ‘The Favorite Passion of my Soul’.” Monticello. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/a-day-in-the-life-of-jefferson/a-delightful-recreation/jefferson-and-music/ (accessed April 10, 2019).
  18. Nurse Journal. “The Benefit of Music Therapy for Autistic Children.” Nurse Journal. https://nursejournal.org/community/the-benefits-of-music-therapy-for-autistic-children/ (accessed April 12, 2019).
  19. Orenstein, David. “MIT Scientists Discover Fundamental Rule of Brain Plasticity.” MIT News. http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-scientists-discover-fundamental-rule-of-brain-plasticity-0622 (accessed April 12, 2019).
  20. Peacock, Eric. “Top 8 Autism Therapies – Reports by Parents.” Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/top-8-autism-therapies-reported-parents (accessed April 12, 2019).
  21. Smith, Melinda, Jeanne Segal and Ted Hartman. “Helping Your Child with Autism Thrive.” Help Guide. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/autism-learning-disabilities/helping-your-child-with-autism-thrive.htm (accessed April 12, 2019).
  22. Taylor, Ashley P. “Newton’s Color Theory, ca. 1665.” The Scientist. https://www.thescientist.com/foundations/newtons-color-theory-ca-1665-31931 (accessed April 10, 2019).



JENNIFER BINGHAM is a special education teacher currently working as a Special Needs Coordinator. She has a Bachelor’s degree in elementary and special education and a Master’s degree through Penn State University in Education and Curriculum Development. Her professional career began with students on the spectrum, who inspire her to continue to develop research methods and resources to help families with special needs.


Spring 2019  |  Sections  |  Music Box

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