Today’s article is the result of an email I sent to this Friday’s Podcast guest, Lydia Meem from Autism Understanding, asking for her thoughts on strategies for teaching music to students with special needs.
Lydia is a clinical psychologist. While she doesn’t teach piano, she has extensive experience working with children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disorders and has a huge amount to share with us today about her experience of Autism and Music Education.
Here are Lydia’s top strategies and resources for music teachers.
Many students with autism report having trouble making eye contact and listening at the same time, so it would be a good idea not to expect them to make eye contact when listening to you or the music. You can still try for eye contact in the breaks and pauses between pieces and comments.
Some students might really enjoy playing, but not want to practice, so having a rationale and a reward linked to their interests helps.
Also some students will be very literal thinkers, so if you say you need to practice this exercise or piece, they might play it once and then stop. They might not know you mean they need to play it through several times, and the idea is to keep practising until they can do it without making errors. They might need you to spell out those sorts of instructions much more than you would with other students.
There might be students who get so excited talking about how much they love the music from their favourite TV show and then get sidetracked telling you all about it, and you need to keep bringing them back to the lesson.
They might not get the subtle nonverbal cues we might use with other students, for example clearing your throat, or checking your watch, or saying “Okay”.
They might need something that sounds abrupt but is really helpful for them, like “Stop talking now. It’s time for playing”.
Sometimes we ask a question when we are really giving an instruction. Kids with autism are often quite honest, so if you ask them “Do you want to sit down?” their answer might be “No”. So it’s better to say “Climbing is finished. It’s time to sit down”.
In general with kids with language delays, I would tend to talk less and give them extra time to process the language before just repeating a key word.
You might have little songs or jingles for transitioning from one activity to another. “We are done” by the Madden Brothers is a good song for packing away at the end of the lesson.
For some kids with autism the idea of coming to a piano lesson would be very new and daunting. You can encourage them to bring along something they love from home (for example their favourite teddy or a piece of Lego they love), and then you and the child can take the teddy or the Lego on a tour of the room.
Having a visual timetable of the activities you want to cover in the lesson can be helpful, as this helps them to learn the language you’re using and they can see their favourite activity is coming.
Let’s dig into a few more teaching strategies.
If you’re having trouble engaging with someone who is quite low functioning, it can be helpful to use sensory toys (and of course the piano is a huge sensory toy), especially if you have more than one.
So you might like to have some light-up fans with foam blades so they don’t hurt when kids put their fingers in them (they cover a lot of sensory boxes – the sound of the fan, the lights, the spinning motion, the feel of the fan on their face, on their hair, their ear, nose, mouth, and fingers as well as having a transport theme that appeals to lots of kids).
So if a child seems quite disconnected, you let them play with one, and then you start playing with one, and they will look at your fan, and if you hold it close to your face, they might notice you and think, if this person has such cool toys, what else might they do?
You can do all of this without talking, and at the child’s pace. You can do the same thing with rain sticks.
And then, if you’re including students with autism in a group lesson, they may not know how to make small talk, or to wait for their turn, or to filter their comments about someone else’s playing style.
If you ask the group a question, they might think you really don’t know the answer and try to jump in to answer every question, not realising you want to know how much everyone understands.
It helps to give them a rationale for why they should let others have a turn, to let them in on the secret that you actually know the answers to the questions, and that others don’t like it when you talk over the top of them.
You might need to give them a job to do when they’re waiting (like to hold something), and to have rules around how we show others that we’re listening.
For example Whole Body Listening Larry is a handy poster to have.
Larry listens with his eyes (by looking at the speaker), his ears (both ears ready to hear), his mouth (by keeping it quiet), his hands and feet (by keeping them still), his whole body (by facing the speaker), his brain (by thinking about what is being said) and his heart (by caring about what the other person is saying).
Also you might have students who are reluctant to speak aloud, but will talk if you use the Talking Tom app on your phone, where the cat repeats what you say in a high pitched voice.
Or they might use pictures to communicate (for example Picture Exchange Communication System or a choice board, or a more complex visual system like Proloquo2go or LAMP (Language Acquisition through Motor Planning)).
If you’re interested to find out more about Autism and Music Education and to hear from Lydia directly, make sure you tune into this Friday’s Podcast Episode 60.
Thanks very much to Lydia for putting together this resource and strategy checklist.
For more details on Lydia, you can find more about her at Autism Understanding.
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.