Teaching Non-verbal Children with Autism

by Rhonda Langley
(Portland, Oregon)

I am currently a special education teacher in the public schools, working with children who in many cases have no functional speech and significant cognitive impairment. Music has always been my first love, and I have taught piano lessons over the years here and there, as well as working with my own two sons on the piano, both of whom are quirky and one who is diagnosed with high-functioning autism.

My dream, which I plan to put into effect in Fall 2013, is to teach music lessons full time specializing in students with autism. Right now I'm in the process of creating my own piano lesson method for students with significant cognitive impairment. When we talk about "teaching children with autism" we really should define more what we mean. It's a spectrum disorder. What works for kids like my son, on the high end of the spectrum, may not work for kids like my students, on the lower end of the spectrum.

The method I'm creating will not focus on posture or hand position, for instance. I'm thinking of students who could enjoy the piano as a life-enriching experience, but who are never going to sit at a piano bench as they should. They will need to start with music, from the first moment, such as simply being shown where "c" is, and playing it over and over as the teacher plays the Rondo from Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique (Try it! It works!). The focus will be on rhythm and duet playing, with the teacher carrying the interest and the student "riding along" on a repeating note, or a simple pattern. It will at least expand the life experience of children with very limited cognitive abilities, and may open the door for some children into a whole new world of enjoyment.


Very interesting, Rhonda. I must agree with you that you have to start with what you have, and branch out from there into areas that are rewarding for the student. Playing a single note rhythmically along with a much more sophisticated duet part is really just a lot like being percussion, yet with the harmonic element present too.

Good luck on your music studio, and keep us posted regarding your music method for children with autism.

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Musical savants
by: Deb

Hi! I would love to hear how you are going with your method. I too am a music specialist teacher in a school for children with special needs. Most of our students have autism and/ or cognitive delay. I am currently struggling to find the best way to help 2 of my students who show savant like skills on piano. Both are not functionally verbal but will sing and speak echolalically. If you have any tips for me I would love to hear from you!!


Deb, It's been a long time since I had a student with autism, and I never was an expert. I want to encourage you to check out the work of Henny Kupferstein, who works with nonverbal students. She has a lot of articles and ideas, plus videos, on her site.

I applaud you for your work in this difficult field, and wish you the best of luck.

Child, Myself and my Challenge Child David CH
by: esperansa collier

From me 2 U, I rate U 10, just for understanding our challenge children. I 2 have a challenge child age 16 who is diagnosed with mild mental retardation, alcoholic fetal sydrome and ADHA, he behaves so much like a child w/autisum.

We just purchased a Yamaha upright piano my grandaughter age 12 is learning to play and is taking lessons, I myself have always wanted to learn piano and was also planning to learn and teach my grandson David. I want him to enjoy a new journey with the piano. So I thank you for your website.

I hope to hear from you soon and will continue to check your website for further educating myself for the sake of the children.

Esperansa, David, and Cheyenne
Sacramento, California


I think what you plan to do, to learn piano yourself, will be the best way to help your 16-year-old grandson. If it is fun for you, then you can make it fun for him.

Please look around my site for ideas, and also check out the links to other music websites. All teachers have a different spin on things. Best of luck!

Sounds like a good mix of Music Ed and Music Therapy
by: Anonymous

Rhonda, you are on to an excellent idea and it obviously combines several of your passions.

Have you heard of the field of Music Therapy? Perhaps there is Board Certified Music Therapist (MT-BC) in your area you could consult. It sounds like it may be a field you would be interested in pursuing further.

MT-BCs are trained to work with persons who have a diagnosis of spectrum disorders and often give adaptive lessons. You might find an MT-BC who can give you some additional ideas as you develop your method. Likewise I have an idea you would have a lot of great insight to share with the field of Music Therapy as well!

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