“It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.” Hans Asperger
My understanding of teaching piano to students with autism has gone through many stages, many ups and downs, many hurdles, and stumbling along the way.
The most important thing that I learned through this journey is that the word “autistic” does not define who my student is, it is merely a term, and setting up expectations that are too low or too high was always a mistake that I ended up paying for later with time and extra work.
However, despite the fact that every student is completely unique with a unique set of abilities and disabilities I couldn’t ignore the reoccurrence of some characteristics whenever a new student with autism signs up for piano lessons.
Here are the most important and frequent traits, traits that my experience taught me to expect whenever I have a new student with autism signing up for piano lessons:
1. Communication is difficult:
Teaching students with autism made me realize that I need to attune all my senses to be able to effectively communicate with them since they use a different way to communicate and I need to learn the way each student’s style of communication. Communication comes in different styles, students with autism may have difficulties in expressing their feelings verbally, whether they are confused, frustrated, tired, hungry, and so on. However, behavior is one type of communication, and reading body language and any other signs that indicate that something is not quite right are crucial.
One of the most challenging things that I experienced as a teacher is the difficulty to know if my student is understanding what I am explaining. We are used to the student nodding and verbally agreeing with us while we are showing them or explaining to them a new concept and thus we get reassured that we are moving forward and our point is getting across successfully. However, If the student has autism, in most cases I get no reaction and the feedback is minimal sometimes leading me to wrongly assume that the point didn’t get through.
2. Motor skills is a challenge:
Fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and technique, in general, are one of the main issues I face when teaching students with autism.
However, it varies with degree and severity from very mild to more severe where playing a five-finger scale seems impossible in the beginning.
I always find myself having to give a good chunk of the lesson to establish the minimum basics which seem to come naturally and quickly to other students, such as moving a certain finger on demand, being able to carry the weight of the hand while playing, using all fingers and not completely ignoring to play with a certain finger as if it doesn’t exist. In some cases, I have to point to the notes being played on the book for a long time to prevent the student from getting lost on the sheet after every other bar of music.
3. An amazing ear for music and/or perfect pitch are highly likely:
Most of the students with autism who signed up for piano lessons in my studio came with their parents noticing their aptitude, love, and appreciation for music. During the course of my teaching I taught a few students who had perfect pitch, what is most unusual is that all of them without exception were children with autism. As much a blessing this is, it seemed to always complicate the process of learning to read music notation. Teaching a student with perfect pitch how to read music proved to me to come with its own challenges. The student has an exceptional ear and of course, and as a result, would rather use their ear to learn and memorize instead of putting the extra effort to learn a new complicated skill using their weaker abilities and skills.
4. Meltdowns and tantrums are a possibility:
It took me some time and a lot of learning to be able to completely avoid the much-dreaded meltdowns and tantrums in my studio.
Behavior is always a way of communication and I had to learn this fact the hard way. A child who is not a very skilled communicator and at the same acting out is trying to communicate something but in a different way. I needed to work on myself a lot to learn this different way of communication.
5. There will be some type of a sensory issue:
Sounds, lights, touches, smells and the total environment feels different to your student who has autism. The fluorescent light above your piano that you hardly notice might be a problem and seem too bright, or even flicker. The sound of the cars coming from the window may be overpowering the sound of the piano. Anything around you that you perceive as normal might be the cause of sensory overload. Your perfume may even be too strong.
I found the following strategies to work very well with my students with autism making the lessons both fun and effective:
1. Jumping into note reading from the beginning is not a good idea:
Delaying the staff could be one of the most important things that I do which helps me guarantee good results and avoid frustration. Note reading is a complex process and needs numerous underlying skills and abilities and before I introduce the staff I always make sure my student has all these skills mastered to an acceptable degree.
2. Work on improving motor skills:
I always dedicate the beginning part of every lesson to hand and finger exercises, 5-finger scales, octave scales, and different activities to improve and develop this area in my students with autism, which to my surprise could be drastically improved with a short period of time as well.
My student Jason is a good example:
Jason is a 9-year old boy with autism. His main challenge is his motor skills, both gross and fine. When he first signed in for piano lessons he found it extremely difficult to move and control his fingers. To explain the extremity of the situation I will give you an example of an activity that we used to start with at the beginning of every lesson. I would label every finger with a color, then would ask him to move the finger with the green dot. He would stare at his hand and then all of his fingers would start to move randomly, at the beginning it seemed as if he would move all the fingers except that with the green dot, and if he manages to move it, it just happened out of coincidence, and as if he couldn’t find that particular finger, his brain wasn’t able to find it and move it. When I find myself teaching a student with such a challenge, how would I expect him to play with the correct finger? Even a simple 5-finger scale was impossible to achieve. We went through many lessons of finger exercises to gradually move to be able to simply play 5 finger scales. Jason is an extreme case, but a good example to keep in mind. Now, thankfully, Jason is able to use all his fingers and can play full octave scales using the correct fingers. In order to keep the progress that we made, we need to remember to start and check the scales before we start every single lesson. Until today, when Jason plays the piano, he prefers to move certain fingers and completely ignore others and if I don’t insist, until today Jason will play his pieces using only the first three fingers completely ignoring the rest, regardless of the piece.
3. Predictability and routine are extremely important:
Students with autism crave predictability and routine, they need to know what they are going to do during the lesson and how. Early on, I realized that my lessons would be more effective and my student will be much more cooperative if I do the following:
Create a lesson plan, with visual aids if my student is young and seems to benefit from them, and stick to it especially during the first few months, until my student understands my style and the way the lesson is going to progress.
I share my plan at the beginning of each lesson and explain how things are going to be done, particularly if we are going to do a new activity that we haven’t done before.
I keep doing this until my student is able to predict how the lesson is going to go and If for any reason I decide to stray from the typical lesson plan on a particular day, I make sure to discuss it at the beginning of the lesson.
4. I made sure to adjust my studio to become more sensory-friendly:
I have the piano facing a blank wall, it greatly reduces distractions and helps with keeping the eyes of my student from wandering around the room.
I don’t use any bright spotlights, particularly above the piano that I use to teach my students with autism.
All of my students, especially the ones with autism get highly distracted from the sounds coming from the street, keeping my windows shut helped a lot in avoiding unnecessary distractions.
5. The presence of the parent is helpful, particularly during the first month of lessons:
I ask the parent to stay during the lesson, an involved parent is extremely important if I want to see any progress. Most of my students with autism, particularly the younger ones won’t be able to practice independently without the support of the parent. Not only do they need to be reminded to practice, but they also need help and support while they are practicing as well.
When the parents stay and watch the lesson, they will know exactly how to help their children and will be able to successfully support them and help them progress and achieve their goals.