Autistic non-verbal 6-year-old

by Andrea
(Portland Maine)

I teach a very bright and musical 10-year-old boy in his home whose younger sister is autistic and non-verbal. She can hear and understand but does not talk. Her parents and teachers have taught her some sign language which is helping her communicate a little more.

For the first 6 months of teaching her older brother, she was not at all interested in what was going on. Then, one lesson, we finished the lesson with a jazzy duet and her dad brought her in and danced with her as we played and she just laughed and laughed with delight. Since then, she's been hanging out in the music room during our lessons more. Her parents would like me to try to teach her.

However, she is not direct-able at all. If I invite her to play, she puts on the pedal and presses low keys randomly, listening intently to the sounds and textures. I taught her brother "Kumbaya" by ear in 9 different keys--good for his theory knowledge, but also so she could hear the tune repeatedly, hoping I could interest her in picking it out by ear--but no dice.

What she did do, though, is try to sing. She sings rather like a 4-month-old baby--pleasing, musical tones, not the melody, but pretty, and she has a look on her face of listening intently to the sound she is making.

My instincts are to not try to direct her at this point, to continue to encourage her to sing, and to let her make her resonant, pedalled sound for a few minutes every lesson, and wait and see if there might be an opening for more. My theory is that, until, she can match pitch, she probably can't pick out anything by ear. I don't see her as a good candidate for note-reading any time soon. I welcome insights and suggestions.

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Autistics learning through music
by: Susan

My son is autistic (non-Aspergers) and has been able to learn to play the piano at the same pace as a regular-ed student. He was taught piano by his music therapist. He is now 16 yrs. old, and although he only reads books on a 1-2nd grade level, he plays the piano well enough and enjoys it.
When he was in the elementary school special-ed program, I used to take various musical instruments into his classroom and try to reach the kids. I am a professional musician. I found that the non-verbal kids did quite well with music. One little girl in particular would read the words on the TV screen whenever I brought the karaoke machine in & she would actually sing along w/ the songs in a barely audible voice. To everyone's knowledge, that was the only time that she was verbal. She is now my son's age and verbalizes at the same level that he does, which is still not up to age level, but certainly an improvement on nothing! The kids also did very well w/ keyboards that I would bring in and make overlays onto the keys w/ a number/and or color system to recognize simple songs that they would know from TV/movies, such as "Sponge Bob", etc. They always enjoyed being able to play their melodies and would have little classroom "concerts" which amazed the principal and other teachers.
My son is exposed to many instruments and musicians in our household, and also enjoys drumming and singing. He remembers songs that he has learned several yrs. ago. Although I have not tried to teach him instruments such as the violin or other very difficult & fragile instruments, I feel that he is doing well musically. As a musician (primarily violin, cello, harp), I feel that he can only benefit neurologically from any exposure to music.

Dana: Thanks for the great letter!

Follow Your Instincts
by: Dana


I think that your instinct not to direct her, but to go with the flow -- her flow -- is a really good idea. It means having to be very spontaneous, arming yourself with lots of ideas, plans, and musical games ahead of time, and then deciding what is most appropriate when the moment comes.

Being willing to teach like this takes a bit of bravado. You have to be willing to fail frequently, look silly sometimes, but have fun doing it, and keep trying.

It might be a highlight of her music time if every lesson you came back to a movement-oriented exercise, or action game, or even the dancing that first pulled her into the magic of the music. Dramatic pieces like "In the Hall of the Mountain King" can be great fun to act out, if children know the story. Visuals, such as pictures, might be a good idea.

I have a little 3-year-old (non-autistic) child who comes with her older brother to his violin lesson, and she wants to play guitar. We do spend a few minutes of the half hour with her and her guitar, but it is not like any other lessons I have ever taught before! There is no way to get her to focus on anything I'd call a "skill" for more than a few seconds, and this skill (such as correct holding of the pick, finding string 1 or 2 or fret 1 or 2) has to be coupled with gestures and images. I, holding my pick. I, saying, "Copy-cat me," and plucking one of the strings. She will do about that much, and then her focus is gone again, so I gather it back up with a song she knows and we strum together as we sing (she's not strumming real chords, but my sound is big enough to cover hers, and we sing real loud!). Lesson over, big brother's turn.

The amazing thing is that she is retaining some of what I tell her... I can see it is cumulative.

The singing is a great idea. Have you tried any animal sounds with her? Gorilla hooting, cat meowing, mosquito whining... especially with pictures to go along. That might be fun for her.

Her parents are probably thrilled that you are willing to think outside the box for their little girl. I hope you keep us posted on progress with her.

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