Teaching Music To Autistic Students

Over the years, I’ve had the interesting challenge of teaching a handful of students who were on the autism spectrum. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the special needs community since my youngest sister was born with a serious disability, and I’ve lived through some of her struggles with her first hand.  I feel that I have to at least try to work with any student who has the desire to learn an instrument until we reach a point where I’m more of a hindrance than a help.

Autism in Music

Every student is different, and this is even more so the case with autistic students because there is no one way to categorize or pigeon hole autism. Even high functioning autistic students can have social interaction and motor control issues that you’ll have to find a way to overcome.  I had one student who consistently had a hard time focusing on complex assignments while another could complete assignments very well, but would start humming and zoning out if my lectures went beyond a minute or so. I had yet another student who had the spectacular gift of being able to identify the pitch of any note he heard on any instrument in the exact order that each note was played even though he had severe limitations in his daily life due to his Asperger’s symptoms. There was definitely no one-size-fits-all teaching strategy to handle the array of behavior patterns, but below are a few techniques that helped me reach my students where they were so that they could also reap the benefits of music lessons just like their mainstream counterparts.

  1. Be prepared to provide a simplified version of assignments or break complex assignments into smaller pieces. I’ve found that having smaller bite-sized deliverables helps keep the momentum during lesson time. For example, we may decide to check off a song line by line instead of making it a requirement to play the whole song perfectly from beginning to end.
  2. As a music teacher, you just have to accept that most assignments will never be polished, so you may have to pick one or two teaching points to focus on and then move on once you feel that your student has reached an acceptable level of proficiency.
  3. For some students you may have to get all of their senses involved in order to draw them into the lesson. I have red rhythm sticks that I let students use to beat out their rhythms while counting out loud. In the past, I’ve also had students glide and then hop across the room to demonstrate the difference between playing legato and staccato. Sometimes I would unexpectedly throw in a flashcard exercise if I would see that I was reaching the end of my students’ attention span for a particular assignment.
  4. If your student has perfect pitch, then you might want to build your lessons around that strength since that is something that comes naturally to the student.
  5. If a student is consistently having trouble reading notes on the staff, then you might want to try associating a note name with the pitch or even a color and then make the connection to the symbol on the staff to see if that helps. You can have your student color the note on the staff with the same color that you used in your association game. Your student can use this same color chart on his/her assignments for the next few weeks or months to see if this finally helps things click as they learn to read notes on the staff.
  6. Colorful and quirky visual aids may also be helpful in getting your student to focus on what you’re trying to teach.
  7. Give your rehearsals a distinct routine, and warn students if you’ll be breaking from it. Many students find this comforting.
  8. I believe that all students should have the equal opportunity to play in my student recitals if they so desire and have the adequate time to prepare. For my autistic students, I make sure to physically practice recital etiquette starting weeks before a recital. This is sometimes very effective for students who have trouble emotionally connecting to others. This way they know what they’re supposed to do even if they can’t fully understand why they should acknowledge the audience that has so kindly sat through their performance.

I’m in no way an expert when it comes to handling autistic or other special needs music students since the bulk of my training has come on the job. This list of ideas came about after a long time of trial and error, and I’m happy to have met my autistic students because they’ve helped to make me a better teacher for all students. I hope that this article will be helpful to you should you ever find yourself in my shoes one day.

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