By Hrayr Attarian, MD
Today the pianist Blind Tom Wiggins (AKA Bethune) is definitely not a household name and is somewhat relegated to the dusty annals of history. From the mid-nineteenth to the very early twentieth century, however, Wiggins was a prodigy who some dubbed the Eighth Wonder. Autism was unknown back then and therefore no one could have diagnosed him with it. Nevertheless, it is quite clear from reading about him that he, in all likelihood, fell within the autistic spectrum. And although he predated jazz per se, Wiggins improvised all his pieces in the style of popular music of the time including waltzes, nocturnes, and later, some ragtime. I came across Wiggins accidentally in the used CD bin of a local record store sometime in 2002. Pianist John Davis’ John Davis Plays Blind Tom: The Eighth Wonder (Newport Classics, 2000) contained copious liner notes that include essays and biographical information by Davis as well as magician, actor, and writer Ricky Jay, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, and activist poet Amiri Baraka. Sacks’ piece contains a curious statement. He contends that, because Wiggins was most likely autistic, he could not have been truly creative. Sacks maintains that “creativity has to do with inner life—with the flow of new ideas and strong feelings. Creativity, in this sense, was probably never possible for Blind Tom.” (1) Whether he was autistic or, as Baraka claims in his essay, was labeled such because of “white supremacist mumbo jumbo . . . which still passes for science,” (1) two things are clear: first, he was indeed extremely creative, as his improvised pieces (transcribed by others) demonstrate; and, second, science can prove even the most august minds wrong—as it has done in this case with the venerable Sacks. Autistic people do have an inner life and can be creative. To be fair, Sacks wrote his essay in late 1999, and a lot has changed in our understanding of autism over the past two decades. People reading this in 2040 may find some of the provided information here, in turn, to also be outdated.
What Is Autism?
A disorder of brain pathway development, autism primarily affects social interaction and communication. There is a change in the way brain cells process information and organize their connections with one another (2). The cause remains unknown (2). The school of thought that autistic individuals cannot be creative comes from animal research now almost twenty years old. When the brains of test animals in areas thought of as the seats of creativity were experimentally damaged, they exhibited symptoms similar to autism (3). In 2010 a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) research study showed that, compared to controls, autistic individuals had an impaired response in the areas of the brain that processes the understanding of the emotional content of language. They did, however, try to “compensate” for it by showing an increased activation of language comprehension areas of both sides of the brain (4).
Figure 1 is a highly stylized and simplified drawing marked in red is the area of the brain that is involved in grasping emotional content of speech and in blue the primary area of language comprehension.
Previous research on jazz musicians had shown activation in areas of the brain unrelated to the above two areas (5), and, although no studies exist on autistic jazz musicians, given what we have here strongly suggests that autism does not preclude creativity. This is not to suggest that, in order to be an artist, one needs to have autism or one of the related disorders, as most musicians do not, and most individuals on the autistic spectrum are not musicians.
Figure 2 illustrates in orange the parts of the brain that are activated in jazz musicians during the creative process.
Indeed, later studies showed that musical creativity is not only a strength in autistic individuals, but that it can be used to improve social communication (6). Here is some evidence from history of art and music as well. Arguably, the greatest modern interpreter of the Johann Sebastian Bach canon, Glenn Gould (7). was a high-functioning autistic individual, as is young jazz piano phenomenon Matt Savage (8), who started performing with his own trio at age nine. Not to forget jazz pianist Derek Paravicini (9) and jazz multi-instrumentalist Tony DeBlois (10), both of whom, like Tom Wiggins, are blind. The list goes on and on, but it’s worth mentioning one more individual: Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, who is severely autistic and non-verbal, and although not a musician, is a brilliant poet, author, and philosopher, and has written Beyond the Silence: My Life, the World and Autism (National Autistic Society, 2000) (11). Can we sincerely claim that these individuals are not creative in the traditional sense of the word? Autistic individuals are not devoid of an inner life, nor are they indifferent to the world. In fact, what is interpreted as indifference is, in reality, the anxiety produced from being overwhelmed by ordinary sensory inputs. Many years before the advent of MRI and the publication of the research quoted earlier, therapist Gail Gillingham eloquently summarized the misunderstandings surrounding autistic individuals in these words: When we listen to those with autism, we discover a totally new picture of the condition. We find individuals who long for relationships with us, who have cognitive skills intact and are able to communicate with us in ways we never dreamed possible (12).
What About The Role of Jazz in the Science of Autism?
Many a dedicated music teacher has discovered that autistic individuals can become impressive improvisers when encouraged—in fact, many of them have perfect pitch. Moreover, improvised music and jazz therapy has become a useful tool in helping musically gifted autistic children gain self-awareness and relate to others in social situations.
Jazz, in using improvisation as an end rather than a means of perfecting a composition, is the quintessential unconventional musical (and conversational) form. Therefore, how can we define it by the narrow and rigid conventions of creativity? The freedom involved in playing jazz became a metaphor for not only the yearning and demands of the oppressed African Americans who invented the genre, but also for freedom in other political and social situations; hence, most dictatorships banned the genre. In the same vein, autistic individuals by being labeled “devoid of inner life,” and other such pseudoscientific epithets, are a marginalized group. Jazz, in its freedom of expression, is a uniquely suited art form for these individuals to express their desire for equality and respect.
As Canadian author John Clifton remarked:
They live dissonant lives in a world made up mainly of neurotypicals [non-autistic people]. They are frequently landing on the “wrong note” and hence their feelings of isolation (13).
Isn’t dissonance and landing on the wrong note what the high priests of western music said about jazz at its inception—and what the genre’s own establishment continues to say about every new innovator in its own field? After all, French impresario and critic Hugues Panassie rejected Charlie Parker (“When he developed what was called bop he ceased to be a real jazz musician”); author Albert Murray labeled Ornette Coleman’s music as “chaos”; and critic Stanley Crouch called Miles Davis a “sellout,” because of his experimentations with electric instruments. Clifton also quotes an autistic music fan:
Jazz is a music created by an oppressed people. He says he can identify with that (13).
We now return to Blind Tom, who was born into slavery on May 25th, 1849—and, although he died in 1908, several decades after emancipation, through legal loopholes his previous owner, General James Bethune, and later his daughter-in-law, maintained guardianship over him and continued to exploit his musical talents(14). Tom not only had to face the dual social evils of slavery and racism, but also the stigma of autism. His creativity and his improvised music were his cry and venue for freedom.
1) Davis J, Sacks O, Baraka A, Jay R. Liner notes of John Davis Plays Blind Tom: The Eighth Wonder (Newport Classic, 2000), Newport, RI.
2) Masi A, DeMayo MM, Glozier N, Guastella AJ. An Overview of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Heterogeneity and Treatment Options. Neurosci Bull. 2017;33(2):183‐193.
3) Wolterink G, Daenen LE, Dubbeldam S, et al. Early amygdala damage in the rat as a model for neurodevelopmental psychopathological disorders. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2001;11(1):51‐59.
4) Anderson JS, Lange N, Froehlich A, et al. Decreased left posterior insular activity during auditory language in autism. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2010;31(1):131‐139.
5) Limb CJ, Braun AR. Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLOS ONE. 2008;3(2):e1679.
6) Sharda M, Tuerk C, Chowdhury R, et al. Music improves social communication and auditory-motor connectivity in children with autism. Transl Psychiatry. 2018;8(1):231.
7) https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/medical-clues-that-glenn-gould-may-have-had-autism accessed May 26, 2020.
9) Ockelford A. In the Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini, New York: Arrow; 2010.
10) https://www.tonydeblois.com accessed May 26, 2020.
11) Savarese RJ. More Than a Thing to Ignore: An Interview with Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay. Disabil Stud Q. 2010;30(1): http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v30i1.1056
12) Gillingham G, Autism: A New Understanding! London: Tacit Publishing Inc; 2000.
13) Clifton John, Autism and Jazz, at www.uoguelph.ca, accessed May 26, 2020.
14) Schmidt, Barbara. Archangels Unaware, at www.twainquotes.com, accessed May 26, 2020.