Speech and Language




My nonverbal child can sing but can't speak. Why is this?

Posted on October 10, 2017 at 7:20 PM

My nonverbal child can sing but can't speak. Why is this?

Many parents have reported that their nonverbal child with autism can sing but will not speak.  This was certainly the case with musical prodigy Logan Blade whose family describes him as nonverbal except when a microphone is put in his hand.  He now has two records that he has released on iTunes.  This is also the case with internet sensation "Isaac" whose rendition of Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle's A Whole New World in perfect pitch left many experts in speech and language baffled.  A simple internet search of this question brings up parents describing instances of humming or singing in the absence of spoken words.  But why is this?

Did you know that music and language are generally housed in two separate parts of the brain?  This is not to say that there is no overlap.  In general, in nonmusical neurotypicals (NTs) language use and interpretation is housed in the left hemisphere of the brain.  This is why if we have a stroke in the left hemisphere of the brain we may be likely to receive a diagnosis of Aphasia   (impaired language use or comprehension or both) while a stroke in the right hemisphere of the brain will usually not affect language.  The interpretation of music and rhythm in NTs who are not musicians  is generally housed in the right hemisphere of the brain (Ono et. al 2011).  This information is based on knowledge obtained from imaging scans of the brain (e.g., MEG).  

So, what does this have to do with nonverbal autism?  A lot.  Studies using imaging such as EEGs have found that individuals with autism have decreased brain activity in the left hemisphere of the brain but increased activity in the right hemisphere of the brain (Floris et. al 2015).  You will remember that the left hemisphere "houses language" and the right hemisphere "houses music."  

So, let's simplify this.  If it is true that language is a left hemisphere task and music is a right hemisphere task and brain scans of children and adults with autism have shown greater activity in the right hemisphere of the brain as compared to the left hemisphere, would it make sense that a child with autism would be more likely to sing than to speak?  Yes!  This is perhaps why so many have been shown to have "absolute" pitch (see evidence section).  This is also why M.B.C.T. uses musical strengths to help bring about verbal speech in nonverbal children with autism.  This may also be why certain sounds and pitches are painful (More studies need to be done on this, but imagine if you heard incessant talking while you were trying to relax.  The humming of the air-conditioning or other sounds NT's tune out may not be so easily ignored in those with autism.)

Yes, music has been known and shown to shape and change the brain!  We share many more fascinating research studies at our conference on M.B.C.T. through www.ciaoseminars.  Join us!


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association ( retrieved 10/11/15).

Logan Blade | Unspoken | CD Baby Music Store ( retrieved 10/11/15)

Oimet, T., Foster, N. E., Tryfon, A., & Hyde, K. L. (2012). Auditory- musical processing in autism spectrum disorders: A review of behavioral and brain imaging studies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252, 325–331.

Ono, K., Nakamura, A., Yoshiyama, K., Kinkori, T., Bundo, M., Kato, T., & Ito, K. (2011). The effect of musical experience on hemispheric lateralization in musical feature processing. Neuroscience Letters. [Epub ahead of print].

Floris, Barber, Nebel, & Mostofsky (2015).  Atypical Rightward Cerebral Asymmetry in Male Adults with Autism Stratifies Individuals with and without Language Delay.  Human Brain mapping 00:00-00.

Flagg, Cardy, Roberts, Roberts (2005).  Language lateralization development in children with autism: Insights from the late field magnetoencephalogram. Neuroscience Letters, 386(2), 82-87.

Sandiford, G. S., Mainess, K., Daher, N. (2012). A pilot study on the efficacy of Melodic Based Communication therapy for eliciting speech in nonverbal children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Oct. 14 [Epub ahead of print].

Sandiford, G. S., Mainess, K., Daher, N. (2013). Improving pragmatics in nonverbal children with autism using melodic based communication therapy. Autism 3: 116. doi: 10.4172/2165-7890.1000116

Categories: Who is M.B.C.T. used for?, My child has autism and doesn't speak. What should I do?