What About Teaching Piano to Autistic Adults?

by Rachel

Hi! I found your site by searching "teaching piano to autistic adults."

Your site seems to have the most information on teaching autistic children, but I was hoping by contacting you I could get a little more specific direction. I have been teaching piano for about 12 years and in that time have had a few students with mild learning disabilities.

This week a woman brought her ADULT son to me for a trial lesson. He has autism, PDD and mild mental retardation. I found him to be likable immediately and want to try taking him on as a student even though I have zero experience teaching someone with severe disabilities.

However, his mother told me that when he was a child, she was told that he would never amount to much and yet he wrote his own check for his lessons!

I don't want to waste their time and his money, but I didn't want to be closed-minded and refuse them after only one trial lesson. I think I need time to build a rapport.

We tried a page from the Faber Piano Adventure series- Primer level and agreed to re-evaluate the situation each month. Do you have any suggestions for me? I realize that each person with autism is unique so there aren't any universal "rules" but have you found some techniques that seem to work most of the time?

On the other hand, are there things that I should probably avoid? Also, should I allow him to take time to quote lines from a movie or make random hand gestures before getting back to the music?

Any insight you could offer would be most appreciated! Thank you. ~Rachel

Hi, Rachel,
Definitely take this adult student on... you will learn so much, and you WILL be able to help him play piano. Your concern shows that you are a conscientious teacher.

You will have to modify your teaching style a bit, like being willing to wait for him to focus sometimes. On the other hand, the more time you spend with him, the more you will know when it is okay to cut him short and redirect his thoughts without hurting his feelings or embarrassing him.

This is truly a case of "learning as you go" -- for YOU! Enjoy his movie stories with him -- and see if you can figure out some movie themes that he knows, to teach him by rote. A good way to do it is a short phrase every week. Don't write it out with notes, but with letters -- that is, if he knows his key names. Start where he is.

You don't say if he can read, or if he can read music. I'm guessing not... therefore, you have to get started, but go slow, and every week do some note-drawing and key-finding... low pressure and more of a game, if possible.

Have a look at "The Perfect Start for Notereading" books. Someone on a piano forum said, "Book 1 has been a big success with a (very) high-functioning autism-spectrum little boy who had finished MFPA B but needed more drill on note-reading. He really enjoys the lyrics and the pace is exactly right for him."

If you haven't seen these books yet, you might be pleasantly surprised; the pictures and words are more appealing for older students than the ordinary Faber stuff, which is nice, but more kid-focused.

Think about structuring his lesson into 3 or 4 categories & follow that format closely.

Do a lot of ROTE LEARNING -- teach him chords for the left hand, open chords (1 & 5 fingers), then broken and solid chords, and show him how to make up his own songs with changing chords.

Keep reading. Have you read all the input from readers to my pages? There is a lot there.

I sense that you are worried you might be wasting your clients' money if you let him ramble on or make hand gestures you don't see other students making. Don't worry about that... you are learning to understand this young man, and your acceptance will be an important part of his learning with you.

Good luck, Dana

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