Autistic Student Can't Tell If Notes Are On Lines Or Spaces

by Paula

I have been teaching a 9 year-old girl with autism for about a year. She knows the notes on the keyboard, but doesn't seem to be able to identify whether a note is on a line or space. We use EZ play music, which has the names of the notes written in the notes, but with anything else, she is lost. Any suggestions?


You have probably tried some of this, but I wouldn't give up: first, I think I would have her DRAW line and space notes at every lesson. If she can MAKE them, she should be able to recognize them.

You draw them too -- draw them GIGANTICALLY on a whiteboard or a chalkboard. Make some that are obviously very poorly drawn -- too tiny or squashed to fill the space, or cutting into a second line, etc. Have her also make some very bad notes, and then try to make some perfect notes.

Draw one, and say "Pick a key on the piano." Then, draw a note higher, lower, or the same. Sit at the piano as you draw, and see if she will move a tiny animal up, down, or stay the same to follow your note-drawing.

On one of my web pages called Reading Piano Music I have two photos of kids using giant cloth keyboards/staffs; one photo shows the staff sides, and the other shows the keyboard sides. There are many different games I have made up using these helpful tools. You could make your own using heavy cardstock paper. I bought a set of tiny animals to use as markers, and my students enjoy working with them, and also getting away from the piano bench.

For reading practice, you might want to consider The Perfect Start for Notereading. This is a book filled with cute little pieces and not too much distracting text that use the same notes over and over again, then move on. The first 5 songs use only Middle C and D (like my little songs, C&D and C&B). Have you looked at my page, Wormies?

If Wormies is doable, then you can build on that. But first, she must recognize lines and spaces -- and I really think drawing them first would help the concept sink in.

Also, in my opinion, you'd be better off moving away from the notes-with-names inside them (the EZ Music). It must surely be a crutch. Perhaps you could try filling in just one note-head per measure (so she can't read the name), then treating it like a game, not a chore. Just an idea. I'd use pencil!

Best of luck!

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Similar Challenge with My Son with Autism - Some Ideas
by: Anonymous


My son, who has autism too, initially also wasn't able to differentiate between a line and a space when beginning to learn to read music.

After a while I realized that although he does have fairly decent verbal communication skills, he didn't understand what the words "line" and "space" meant--neither in the music context nor in general.

He easily learned to find and identify the piano keys by name, by appearance, (and by ear, incidentally), so one strategy I used was to sit at the piano with him with a very large staff and a very large cardboard note (coin sized) that I would slowly move from one line to the adjacent space and so on, starting with middle C and correlating each note to its corresponding key on the piano as we went along. Since middle C stands out distinctly on the staff, being on its own little ledger line, he was able to recognize it relatively easily, so we used it as a starting place and would move up or down one note at a time on the staff and the keyboard simultaneously so he could see and experience the connections systematically.

We also used flashcards that gave him the opportunity to simply memorize the appearance of single notes on the staff, without having to "understand" or describe their placement using any language. I think this really was the key for him, as like many people with autism, he has a great memory and great visual skills.

After a while, although he still couldn't necessarily respond to the language "line" and "space", he learned to see the difference between the notes and to recognize and memorize the notes on the staff.

As with any beginner, at first we just began with a couple of notes on either side of middle C: A,B,and middle C on the bass clef and middle C, D, and E on the treble clef.

Once he could recognize these notes readily as single flashcards I began placing the flashcards in front of him in 2-3 note sequences for him to play on the piano, which I would constantly switch up, so in effect he had mini-mini sight reading exercises which helped demonstrate that he really could read the notes, though he was still reading them off the flashcards. Once he got good at this I also got a second identical set of flashcards so that I could create slightly longer note sequences with repeating notes, such as E,D,D,E,C for him to read and play. From there we transitioned smoothly to reading the easiest of primer-level sheet music incorporating the same notes, such as in the Fabers' Piano Adventure series and Leila Fletcher's "Music Lessons Have Begun" book.

Later he was able to learn to identify lines and spaces on the staff, as a by-product of having already learned to read notes on the staff.

He is continuing to learn to read music and play music, now much the way a typical learner would.

Incidentally, there have been other things in his life that he has learned in the reverse order compared to typically developing children, usually having to do with concepts in language being harder for him to learn or talk about than facts that he can memorize by rote.

Some other strategies:
1. I did also have him trace the lines on a staff (saying aloud "line line line" while he traced the lines) and draw notes on the staff (initially on a very large staff, so it was easy to see and to draw the notes). Now he has transitioned to being able to write notes on a more ordinary beginner staff, with the staff size being about 6 staves to the page. His fine motor skills and his printing have improved a lot over time; otherwise we would have stayed with the giant staff if that's what his fingers could manage easily.
2. We also played a simple "game" of moving a small object around on a giant staff and playfully yelling out whether it was in a space or on a line. I had to model the correct answers many, many times before he saw the pattern, and he found it quite frustrating initially, so I helped him as much as needed to give him the experience of success.
3. I also considered colouring the lines and spaces (e.g. tracing the lines with a red pencil and colouring in the spaces with a yellow pencil so we could refer to them by colour. We didn't end up needing to try this strategy, as simple rote memorization worked well for him, but it might be helpful to another child who doesn't understand the words or concepts "line" and "space".

I hope this is helpful, or at least interesting, and that you and your child have a great time enjoying music together!

Lines and Spaces
by: michele

Re:the students who has problems determining lines and spaces: In my experience, this can be a visual perceptual problem. It can sometimes be corrected, even in children with special needs, by vision therapy through a person trained in that field.
Not all of what we see in special learners is intellectual in nature.

Birds on a telephone line
by: Charles Consaul

One of the strategies I have used is to have the student draw birds on a telephone line for the spaces, and those bright red or orange insulators that they used to use for notes on the line. Using the two colors seems to help, plus the student eventually recognized the difference between the placement of the note. In the case of one student, he actually related the notes as "Girl" "Boy!" I had been saying "Buoy" and I guess he thought I was saying boy. I am not sure how he got girl out of bird, but it worked for him, so I didn't pry into it too much. By the way, it takes more time to draw "Birds and Buoys" than it does to just draw notes, so be sure to allow for that.

One of my students sees notes on the line as shish-kabobs. One of my female students sees the notes on the lines as being on the road, and the notes on the spaces as being pulled over between lanes. I also play a game with the students where I have them draw a graph, give them specific statistical information to post on the graph, then at the end I have them draw a treble clef on the left side, and we "Play the song we made from the graph!" This is especially effective for students with Aspberger's syndrome who are fixated on science.

Wow, thanks for these ideas, they sound fun for any kid. I'm going to have a go at them.

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