The Autistic Classical Singer, Part 1

The Autistic Classical Singer, Part 1

Imagine having trouble knowing when to stop talking and letting another person speak. Imagine coming off as rude no matter how polite you try to be. Imagine not enjoying small talk or communicating with strangers. Imagine loving narrow topics of study or knowledge very deeply, but not being able to share these interests with others in the detail that you find so fascinating.

But then imagine discovering that communication can work when singing in front of an audience. Imagine finding your gateway to human interaction through the gift of the human singing voice. Imagine that all your solitary endeavors—the practicing alone, the learning alone, the being alone, is perfected in the act of offering your singing to listening ears.


Autism is a condition that is sometimes called “neurodivergent” as opposed to “neurotypical”—something which diverges from the normal modes of human behavior. Autism is classified as a “spectrum disorder”—meaning that while there are certain similarities between members of a rather wide spectrum of behaviors and symptoms, there is also great latitude between expressions of the disorder among its members.

Autistic persons tend to have problems with social interaction, emotional control, frustration tolerance, and in some form or another, verbal communication. Autistic persons can range from the non-verbal to the highly talkative. Autistic behavior can range from repetitive behaviors or speech patterns to a highly organized and detail-oriented pattern of behavior. The highest level of functioning was at one time called Asperger’s Syndrome. Austrian Psychiatrist Hans Asperger had associations with the Nazis during World War II and thus the identification with him and this form of autism has fallen out of favor. In 2013, it was incorporated into Autism Spectrum Disorder as Level 1 Autism. Persons with Level 1 Autism tend to be very verbal, talkative, narrowly focused, and struggle with norms of social behavior.

Music therapy can play a significant role in the lives of persons with autism. It is highly beneficial for reducing the over-connectivity in the brain typical of persons with autism, which can help with behavioral problems stemming from over-stimulation. Autistic persons also benefit from the routine and regular practicing of an instrument or voice.

Autism in females is harder to diagnose than in males because the symptoms are more subtle. This is largely due to the ability of many females with autism to perform the function of “masking,” sometimes called “camouflaging.” Masking is not the super-ego (in Freudian terms) but it is similar in that it is the outward presentation of the self that one makes to the world. The difference is that for autistic persons masking is a learned behavior, which is acquired by observation of others, imitation, and practice. It does not come naturally. Masking is not the “true” person who has autism, but a tool by which an autistic person can communicate with the outside world.

I was diagnosed with Level 1 Autism in 2015 at the age of 53 after a lifetime of being misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder. I had had behavioral problems since I was a preschooler and into my adulthood I had problems with certain forms of social interaction and expectations. I did not ever do well in typical work environments.

But I discovered when very young that I could sing, and directed the bulk of my attentions throughout my life through most of middle age to being a singer and then a voice teacher. I found that although I had trouble in normal work situations, once I got on a stage or in front of an audience, I could “put on my face” and do a performance, and then leave. I did not have to engage with people much except for what you say before and after a gig. I had control of the situation insofar as my performance was concerned and this was very comforting to me.

Persons with Level 1 Autism tend to be very verbal and love to talk about things which interest them. Left unhindered, a person with Level 1 Autism could talk for an hour about something without interruption. It is not two-way communication, but very much a one-sided form of communication.


I found that when I was singing publicly, it was the ideal form of communication for me. I had a roomful of attentive people and I could offer myself to them without having true reciprocity. I could in this sense be my true self (though only through my art) while offering something of value that I could do well, through the medium of singing. This was made possible by my learned ability at masking. There are few situations in life where an autistic person could find acceptance and validation through one-way communication such as in the act of singing and performing.

I also found that private voice teaching worked well for me. I could handle the 1-1 interaction of a single person at a piano much better than the difficulties which arise from lecturing to 40 students in a college gen Ed class. My uniqueness and verbal eccentricities only enhanced my credibility and persona as a true creative person and vocal artist.

In the next installment we will look at singer Susan Boyle, the challenges she faces as an autistic singer, and offer guidance and encouragement for autistic classical singers.

Theresa Werba

Theresa Werba is the author of eight books, including her soon-to-be released Finally Autistic: Finding My Autism Diagnosis as a Middle-Aged Female. Werba holds a Bachelor of Arts in vocal music performance from Skidmore College and a Master of Music with distinction in voice pedagogy and performance from Westminster Choir College. Her recording Lullabies: Traditional American and International Songs may be found on streaming services (under the name Theresa Rodriguez). Werba is the joyful mother of six children and grandmother to seven. Find Theresa Werba at and on social media @thesonnetqueen.