Autism and music do definitely go together, but it can be a challenge for the parents, the child, and the teacher. I personally have teaching experience with only one child with autism, and another one with Asperger's Syndrome. Teaching younger kids can be difficult enough, but special needs students require extra attention and patience.
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My student with autism is charming and polite, and always willing to do what I ask. He is a storyteller, and loves to talk about his favorite things -- mostly the video games he's been playing, the cartoons he's been drawing, and what mischief his baby brother has been up to.
My piano student is not one of those "autistic savants" -- one of those individuals who perform brilliantly within a narrow specialization. He is just a nice kid who enjoys music, especially music with which he is familiar.
Though he is willing to take instruction, his autism means his processing time for questions and directions can be slow. I have found that I can direct him to do something, but then I must wait for him to work it out...without interrupting his thinking with another comment. If I do interrupt, he may have to start the process over again almost from the beginning, typical for children with autism.
This makes things pretty hard for him in public school (he does attend school currently), because he seems mature and is very high-functioning in a lot of ways...but he needs more time than kids without autism to work things out.
I have learned to curb my natural impetuosity and occasional flamboyant teaching style somewhat during his lessons, because he finds my enthusiasm more confusing than exciting. Sometimes he doesn't understand humor as intuitively as other kids, so I can't always interact with him in just the same way as with other students. (Actually, this is true with ANY student -- a teacher finds that what works with one child finds no response in another child.) Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to teach him and see him make progress.
My student struggles with rhythm. Where others count numbers evenly spaced ("1...2...3...4..."), he may count "1-2....1-2...1,1,1-2!" (Although lots of piano students in the first couple of years will do this, even past Level 1.) Counting with a metronome, rather than helping, is terribly distracting for him. (Staying focused is very hard for kids with autism. His mother has told me that tree branches moving outside the window will also break up his concentration...and indeed I can see him struggling to re-focus numerous times during a lesson.) Hand gestures from me (as in a simple kind of conducting) work much better than a metronome to help him "hold" a half note for its 2 beats, or a whole note for 4 beats.
The music that seems to work best for my autistic student is music he has heard before in video games or movies, famous tunes such as Ode to Joy and Yankee Doodle, and very dramatic melodies such as the first phrase from Bach's Toccata in Dm. (He learned it by rote, one figure at a time.) He LOVES the 12-Bar Blues, which is not really a song at all, but just a group of chords with a simple melody, a pattern that gets more and more complex as students' abilities increase and we add more to it.
When the Fabers of FJH Music came out with their new series "My First Piano Adventures," I took him out of the regular Primer ("the Purple Book," as we call it at my studio) and switched him to the B level book of the new series. It was pretty easy for him, giving him reachable goals from month to month. He tends to stay on the same couple of pieces for about 3 weeks. He is now in the C Book, over halfway through, and doing fine. (Update: Now I would have him in the series The Perfect Start for Notereading, because the quirky graphics and song lyrics are more age-appropriate for him, and there is more repetition of the same notes over and over again. I'm really impressed by the series.)
The mother of a young boy with autism told me about a note-reading course that works for her son by Jon Schmidt of The Piano Guys. This course is supposed to accomplish in 10 weeks what takes ordinary methods TWO YEARS to reach, at least in terms of note-reading. I am very intrigued with this course, called "67 Fun Songs Primer", not to be confused with "67 Fun Songs."
The book is available as a physical book, or a digital file. So far I'm very pleased with it, and the way my students are looking at notes in a new way. Except for students well into Intermediate level playing, I'm making them ALL go through these pages.
Go to Jon's site to read what others have said...
Getting back to my own student, it turns out that actual note-reading is not too hard for him, though like a lot of kids, he finds it difficult to make changes and correct errors, once he has been playing a piece for a few days. Therefore, introduction of new things must be done carefully and with enough time to do a thorough job!
His biggest problem seems to be a failure to "hear" how the song should be executed. Frequently, his pieces don't feel like they have a direction, a goal --it sounds more like his fingers are tapping computer keys, rather than one note leading to the next. Unless he really likes a piece of music, he may not be focused enough to make it SOUND like music. But he CAN make some of his pieces sound musical.
His hand position is still not entirely what it should be. Though he has a decent arch in the shape of his hand posture, his finger number 5 is always wanting to curl under his palm, in a way I've never seen in any other student. I tend not to try to fix everything in one lesson; this is a boy with a lot of challenges at school, and autistic kids can be prone to depression. I want him to improve, but I don't want to add to the burdens in his life.
Over the last few years, I've given him such music as the Pink Panther, Imperial March (from Star Wars), Spiderman, the James Bond Theme, the Batman Theme... you get the picture. All these pieces were re-arranged by me into simple adaptations, with as rich a harmony as I could contrive that I felt wouldn't overwhelm my student. (I'm sorry I can't share them with you -- copyright issues-- but I am sure you can figure them out for your student yourself.)
He also loves Halloween music --it has mood, drama, a sense of story behind it. FJH's Spotlight I has a few fun Halloween pieces at the beginning of the book. I have also written some easy and creepy-sounding Halloween pieces suitable for early readers, being right around Middle C position, which have been great favorites of his.
Over time, I have decided to teach my autistic piano-player pretty much the way I teach all my students, but more slowly, and with much more repetition.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned with him is:
Teach it the first time the way I want him to play it eventually. No simplified versions along the way to getting to the difficult version. His memory is too long, and apparently too inflexible.
For example, he learned the easiest version of Hark How the Bells (Carol of the Bells, or Ukrainian Bell Carol) in which the left hand takes the primary motif. Then,some time later, I decide it was time for him to learn the regular "easy" version. WRONG!
Despite careful preparation each week with the new version and the rhythmic motif in the right hand, lesson after lesson he would come back, look at the new music, and play the old version! I decided it was not a good use of our time, and that we will re-visit the song MUCH later.
I made the same mistake with the 12-Bar-Blues, giving him an easier, but different right hand part than I gave my other students, knowing we would eventually switch. Again, bad idea. He had a hard time letting go of the old pattern, because it was so ingrained (and he liked it). This time I persevered, treating the piece as a duet between him and me, and at last we won through. One week, he finally played the basic pattern for me, WITH SYNCOPATION, just as well as many of my more naturally musical kids. Now the door to using all of the blues scale is opening for him.
The summer before he entered the 6th Grade of public school (age 11 or so here in the U.S.) I was a little concerned about the mandatory band requirement. While I would not want to imply that any child with a desire to be in a musical group should be persuaded not to join, I was worried about the attitude of the other kids when he failed to keep the beat. This is an important consideration in a band! It is hard to balance the needs of an individual child against the aims of a group which necessarily aims for precision. Of course, beginning bands rarely sound like precision machines. But my student with autism feels very keenly the disapproval of other school kids, and it is a source of depression for him... potentially a dangerous situation.
His parents --apart from any input from me-- decided against his joining band and persuaded the school to give him another option.
My student with autism really does enjoy conquering a piece and playing it with energy. He doesn't polish most of his music, and I probably give him too much to work on, but he steadily improves. Without lots of review, he does lose his old pieces (well, don't they all?).
I would like to hear strategies from other teachers, or know how they encourage growth in their children with autism... so if you are willing to share your story or your questions with me and visitors to this site, please make use of the invitation form below!
To see what others have said, please scroll to the bottom of this page.
The following video is a fascinating interview (part 1 of 6) between Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride (MD, neurology & nutrition) and Dr. Mercola of www.mercola.com, The World's #1 Natural Health Website. Her own son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and she hit the ground running, so to speak, to find answers.
What she has to say about a compromised digestive system that fails to nourish the body, and instead turns food into toxicity for the body, is eye-popping. It is her belief that many afflictions which bear different names, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, ADHD and ADD, as well as dyslexia and dyspraxia, all share a common origin with autism -- the condition of the digestive system. Her book deals not with the symptoms of these challenges, but with going to the source and changing the health of the gut.
If you would like to go to the page on Youtube.com that contains the rest of the six videos, CLICK HERE.You may also wish to check out her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia.
Please visit my other pages with more information about actual teaching techniques that can be useful when teaching children with autism, and for finding a teacher for your child:
Have you got experiences, insights, knowledge or just plain frustrations to share with others who teach music to these special kids? Perhaps you have books, articles, or websites to recommend, techniques you've found helpful, or a success story! Every additional bit of information is helpful to those seeking for solutions...
Click below to see stories or questions from other visitors to this page...
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Stasi:... love your blog about teaching children with Autism. During college I worked as an in home tutor to children on the Autism spectrum and I know how much that music can be used to communicate and open up these otherwise introverted personalities. Of the 9 different children I have worked with there was not one who didn't have perfect pitch and couldn't match the tones that I sang to them. Even the one boy who was entirely non-verbal would hum music back to me.
I have read what you wrote about the autistic boy andthe approach you are taking - well done! I mostly like that you recognize the fact that they sometimes have a very long memory. I have made the same mistake - beginning with a more simplified version and then finding ourselves stuck with it.But what a joy to be trusted to work with these kids!
I am a music therapist who has recently began teaching autistic children how to play the piano. I find your website VERY VERY helpful!Thank you so much!!
There is an awesome book written by an Asperger's kid that helped my in-laws and parents understand him better called "Asperger Syndrome, the Universe and Everything (See all Disability Books)" by Kenneth Hall (on Amazon - used for $4 and up). The parents and editors did not edit for content... trust me. It is a book that tells how it is from the kid's side of the disorder.
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Thanks for your interesting web site. I am a piano teacher in Mi with around 20 students that come to my home each week. I share many of your observations about music and trying to find fun music for them to learn at an early age. I googled your site because I am looking for innovation with my autistic student. I have had 3 boys of varying ability in the past and it is always challenging.
Thank you for your comments [regarding teaching a student with autism] they were helpful and encouraging to me. Your current comments are right on par with the abilities of the student I have now, though mine is a bit younger. Though not a savant, after teaching him the C scale last year, he came back the next week and asked if he started on any key could he do the same thing...which he did starting on every (white) key with correct sharps (and flat) his fingering wasn't correct but not too far off.
I have also observed the curved under pinky finger and reluctance to use it at all. Fingering and hand position seems to be my biggest challenge (along with counting) though he mimics rhythms well. He gets aggravated with me in my trying to review as he seldom forgets anything. This year he is doing much better at taking correction from me. He is a fascinating young man (of 9)and I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of teaching him and his precious presence on my piano bench. I look forward to your continued insight.
Kim in Washington:
My son is hooked...I've been introducing piano to my son on and off for a year or so, but he's not had much interest. Then I gave him "Monsters Everywhere". He loved playing it with the organ sound on our piano. He memorized it that week and I'm printing off the other Halloween songs to keep him going. I love the detailed instructions on teaching since he is my first student! Thanks so much.
That is so neat that your son has experienced the magic and mystery of music through this little song. That is so exciting to me. Thanks for writing, Kim!
Carrie,Voice and Piano Teacher:
This site is FABULOUS. For all the reasons you explain on the site itself--this is exactly what piano teachers need! (I still need to go look at the vocal music). Wow. THANK YOU SO MUCH!
Miggy, United Kingdom:
I've just found your website and I think I've died and gone to heaven. I've just taken up the piano again after 35 years absence... buying sheet music was getting expensive/a luxury. The tips are great too. I also live in the middle of nowhere so buying from a shop is not really an option unless I fancy a 120 mile round trip for a piece of sheet music!
Thank you so much for this website, I have found just about everything that I need in music.
...I have been slowly giving my oldest daughter whatever my memory can dredge up, scouring the internet for free music she can do, but your website with its instructions AND tips on how to teach pieces are going to help me SO much in this endeavor. I just wanted to tell you thank you. Really really! THANK YOU!
I recently purchased your arrangement of The Moldau (a longtime favorite of mine). I wasn't sure if any of my students would be interested in it, but to my amazement 3 of my students LOVE it. Thank you so much for making your great arrangement.
I am a "retiree" and brand new guitar student. I have used your guitar tabs for Shenandoah and Amazing Grace, and find it exciting to hear real music coming out of my guitar for the first time.
Thank you for the free downloads! I'm a private teacher and I teach piano and beginner voice as well. :) I've been running my studio for about a year and I've come across the same issue; I don't want my students to have to purchase an entire supplemental book for only a couple of songs. So thank you for this site...some great downloads!!
There is an incredible amount of people online who just want to be heard, but very few who have given what you have so clearly. Regarding instruction for those of us who can't afford lessons, your site has been a real gift to stumble across. I'm looking forward to now removing a few bad habits. My humblest thanks from Australia.
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