How to Teach Piano to an Autistic 4-Year-Old?

by Pedro
(San Juan)

I've been teaching piano for 17 years and recently I started teaching a 4 year old autistic boy. It's a first for me, I wouldn't normally take an autistic student, but he's the son of a good friend of mine.

During the first lesson, I immediately found out that patterns work for him. He repeats almost everything I play as long as it's not more than 7 or 8 notes consecutively, one note at a time, and using only one finger.

He's pre-school so I wouldn't bother with written music notes yet, but I'm curious as to what to expect from him. I figure it's better to teach him songs that he's heard before...

I suppose I can teach him short songs by giving him one pattern at a time, 'till he's able to repeat the whole thing, but I haven't been able to make him use his other fingers. He does the C major scale up and down with his index finger, repeating each note almost exactly as I show him, with different repetition patterns each time.

I'm wondering if anybody has some suggestions on where to go next, if there are specific visual aides that I should be using, anything that helps.

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Autistic 4-Year-Old
by: Dana

A couple of visual aids that may really help such a young one, I'm thinking, are:

His own hands on a piece of paper, traced around with a pencil, then the finger numbers written inside the thumbs and fingers. Punch 3 holes in it and place the paper in his notebook.

A paper keyboard diagram, such as the one available at my own website, that you can add written-in key names to week by week as he memorizes them. Go to

Also, I own a fun spin-the-spinner type of game that I bought from another website, where you try to get your plastic animal (a tiny dinosaur) to race ahead of the other person's plastic animal up the keys to the highest C. Can't remember the name of the game just this moment (it MIGHT be Keyboard Capers), but I'll have a look and make another post to give you the name. It's a good one for cementing in key names... but it can last WAY TOO LONG if you have some unlucky spins, so a timer is useful as a fall-back plan.

Another visual I used to use a lot but which required way too many M&M's or Skittles, was a hand-drawn grand staff, very plain, on a piece of 8 1/2" x 11" paper. I made the 2 staffs (no clef symbols, just lines) exactly the right size so that one M&M fit perfectly as either a line note or space note. Cheerios also fit, and Gummy Bears turned sideways (but they left little grease spots). The problem with giving treats to my autistic student was that he had real restrictions on his diet! But he sure loved snacks, so his mom brought special Gummy Bears for him just to use on that note-reading paper. (I made each of my students their own paper to have in their own book.)

I'm sure you can think of lots of ways to use an aid like this... as I moved my finger up one key or down one key on the piano, for example, the student's candies needed to go up or down. (I placed the paper with the candies inside a tray I made from a little box, so things wouldn't go scattering.)

Now, I find it more beneficial to get up off the piano bench and use a whiteboard for the same purpose. It breaks the routine and gets kids standing up for a bit.

Your mention of patterns is very interesting... I hope you will write again from time to time and tell us how your lessons are going, and what insights you may have. We can all use them.

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