My Grandson: Music and Autism

by Andrea Owens
(Belton, SC)

I am in my 48th year of professional piano teaching (plus a couple more years of teaching before graduating college). On the light side, don't see me as a wrinkled old lady, as that I'm not.
My grandson has always lived with me. He will be 14 in June. Many people would ask if I planned to teach him piano. I never, ever considered it because of his starting school at 3 plus having ABA therapy in the afternoons. He has always struggled academically; therefore, there was no way that I would add to the agressive teaching/therapy that he was getting daily.

Then it happened. One day he said to me "Grammy, when I learn to play the violin, will you come and hear me play?" I said that I would, and promptly forgot about it, that is until he kept on asking me that question. I finally decided that there must be something within that needed to be expressed, so I found a violin teacher.

I explained the situation and told her that I had no idea whether he could learn or not. To my great surprise, violin makes perfect sense as opposed to math, ELA, history and so forth. Like your student, he's no prodigy, but he is doing very well. She often looks at me and says "He got it; most of my kids take _____long to get the concept but he got right away." I've heard that surprised statement quite a few times since he began to study the violin.

My former student was the band director at our school, so I told him that I wanted Sean to try out. In 6th grade he was given trombone as his instrument. He played the trombone with the same ease of learning as the violin, but he kept saying to me, "but I want to play the clarinet." Knowing that he knew that he wanted to play the violin, when school was out I bought a used clarinet, went to the computer to find a website that showed fingerings and started him on the clarinet, caught him up to where the band ended the year, and insisted that the new band director allow him to play clarinet this year. Honestly, I cannot comprehend how he does it so well, but he plays clarinet just as well as the violin and loves it.

What about piano? I jokingly tell everyone when they ask if he plays the piano that I wouldn't have to buy an instrument nor pay for lessons, so his choosing piano would make life too easy. He has no interest whatsoever!

Now about your teaching the child with autism. That child is blessed to have one so willing to break her standard routine in order to bring joy to a chld who may not find accomplishment in too many other phases of life. BRAVO to you! I can say that with all sincerity being on both sides of the matter: teacher and caregiver of a child with autism.

Let me share a very true statement that I hear every once in awhile. "When you've seen one child with autism, you've seen one child with autism." Although there are no people who are just alike, it's even more true in the world of autism. So, as far as teaching a child with autism and their all being so very different, there's not a lot that I can tell you about how to teach other than "go with the flow of each lesson."

There probably will be days when the child isn't on target. I got a note from school this past Wednesday saying that Sean was unfocused much of the day. When he came home, he was sort of unglued and was making some nonsense sounds that have been history for a long time. He wasn't focused during his violin lesson (usually he's very focused and engaged because learning violin is easy rather than a task for him), but you would never guess it by the way the teacher took it in stride. She knew that something was going on that isn't typical so she just kept moving through the lesson without getting either Sean or herself upset. She's a God-send.

Even before I read about your saying you have started using "THE PERFECT START" I thought about that series. That material is wonderful for these kids because all the the distractions are removed making it easy to focus on the notes and so forth. It's uncluttered, truly the perfect book for any student especially those with autism or ADHD.

I didn't mean to "write a book" here, but I simply couldn't leave out any of the thoughts that came streaming through my mind, and still I have one other.

Many years ago I was teaching 2 brothers. The mom told me that their younger sister sits at the piano and tries to play. That younger sister had no left hand. I told the mom that I would start lessons when she got in the 3rd grade, but that I didn't know how far I could go with her. She started lessons when she got to the 3rd grade and ended her study with me with a senior recital her 12th year in school. How did I make it happen? One lesson led to another for 10 years much to my surprise and delight. Not too many years ago I learned that she sits at the piano and plays for her husband who isn't well. My point: one lesson at a time, and don't worry about what and how you're going to teach him next year. What you will do and the music you will teach him then will naturally fall into place THEN, not now. You will always be glad that you did the "unthinkable!"


Oh, Andrea, Thank you so much for writing and sharing your wisdom and experience. It is very encouraging and heartening. It makes total sense that you would not want to overwhelm him with EVEN MORE TO DO.

I am going to repeat what you said that meant the most to me as far as conducting lessons:

"Although there are no people who are just alike, it's even more true in the world of autism."

"...go with the flow of each lesson," and " lesson at a time." Teachers need to hear these things, especially when navigating uncharted waters.

Thank you again.

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Autism and General Tips
by: Anonymous

Thanks for sharing your experiences. It is very supportive and much appreciated!

by: Trixie Hennig

About one-third of my students are exceptional learners, either ADD or ADHD or autistic. I enjoy their lessons more than the rest as I am amazed at my own creativity and spontaneity in response to my students. My best ideas seem to spring up in these teaching situations.

I try to set goals for a 4 to 6 week block of time, and then just figure out each lesson as it goes. Sometimes we can go with my plan, sometimes not! Frankly, we spent one entire lesson playing every tune my student knew by ear to various settings on the metronome. He fixated on the metronome that day and now knows how to play in time and all the Italian tempo words that are written on my metronome! I loved it!

Another one of my students, in the middle of his song at a recital, decided to switch to the harpsichord sound on the keyboard. He switched it and just carried on from where he topped. It was very funny. One of my autistic students, after playing his by first recital (on a gorgeous Steinway grand), got back to his seat and said, "When do I get to do that again?"

It saddens me to hear my colleagues who limit the potential of these students. All my students participate in studio recitals, festivals and exams. And often, it is my exceptional learners who feel the greatest reward!

I have written a book that works great for exceptional learners, combining playing by ear with notation. You can find it at hEarItAbility.


Your experience is inspiring, Trixie! Thanks so much for sharing this with us, and the link to your site.

Thanks, this is encouraging.
by: Anonymous

Thanks, this is encouraging. Glad to hear progress is being made, little by little.

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