Love and learning are two experiences a child shouldn’t have to earn. Sometimes life presents you with learning opportunities quite naturally, like when you touch something hot it hurts, or when you stay up late for too many nights your attention starts to blur. Another form of learning comes though instructional learning from a skilled mentor or coach. These are the individuals who have worked tirelessly learning their expertise and then added in the craft of teaching. Music educators are such craftsmen. However, even with years of experience there may come a time where a new student presents a new consideration, taking the most veteran of teachers on a new learning path.
This short article is to offer support to those teachers who are willing to take on the challenge and joy of serving a child with autism who also has the desire to learn music. Teaching music to a child with autism requires a special skill set which is not typically acquired at teaching school. However Dr. Pamela Heaton, in Science Daily on May 27, 2004 determined that “individual music lessons could hugely benefit children with autism.” She went on to explain that “our research shows that even special needs children without special talents (musical savants) and no musical training can have highly developed musical “splinter skills.” These splinter skills can be defined as talents that may not always present themselves in just the musical context but in other areas as well including strength in organizational patterns, imitation skills and pitch identification.
When a parent witnesses their child’s natural affinity to music the quest for finding a suitable teacher commences and the following question may be repeated many times on the phone – ”will you teach my child music? She has autism and really loves it. Sometimes this question is met with great enthusiasm but more often than not silence on the other end of the phone is a more common response. There are but a few resources that offer music teachers support when teaching a child with special needs. I have reviewed some of these resources and have also sprinkled in some of my own experiences in order to answer some of the most common questions asked by families and teachers. What are the biggest challenges for the teacher when teaching music to a person with autism?
- handling behaviours of the student, including but not limited to tantrums and low concentration. Often the parents are the greatest resource here. When such behaviours are observed asking the parents what typically happens in their home setting, and what works the best, can be of great use to the teacher.
- knowing the best training method for their student. Like all students some learn better in certain styles than others. Some children with autism are strong visually and by using colours for notes or pictures for what is coming next works best. For some students listening to the teacher play the piece in its entirety before they even embark on the learning process works well. And for our kinesthetic learners they often need to physically experience everything about the music from playing the rhythm on a drum, to learning the notes on the keyboard, to marching to the timing of the piece.
What are the benefits of music based education for a person with autism?
- Music is a natural reinforcer and motivator. Parents have commented frequently on the increased attention their child has had during music therapy or music lessons in comparison to other learning environments.
- Music can tap into the person with autism’s strengths including their precision, pitch and organization.
- Music education increases a student’s instruction time during the day. With its abilities to motivate, music helps to develop many areas of the brain including where students develop their mathematics skills, language, and comprehension.
What are the challenges for the student during their lessons?
- Some students may have a unique sensitivity to the music itself (the actual tone, or sound of a particular instrument). It is important that the teacher is sensitive to such issues and adapts their sessions so not to pose harm to the student.
- Some students have a unique ability such as being able to imitate anything. Where this can become a challenge for the student is when they are asked to modify a certain section of the piece (speed up, soften, change a note). For these students it can prove helpful if the teacher plays the song the way they hope to hear it at the end of the learning. This first auditory experience can be incredibly helpful to the student in their process for learning.
FIVE STRATEGIES FOR THE TEACHER:
- When introducing a new piece of music, play it through in its entirety – up to tempo and with all the dynamics and flourishes you hope to hear at the end of the teaching experience.
- Break down the lesson into small segments (ie. taking the instrument out of the case, opening the piano lid, reviewing the previous week’s lesson etc.) Use a picture board to reflect the 5 – 6 segments in every music lesson. Having a regular and familiar opening and closing is really important for framing a successful lesson. However for diversity you may want to make changes to the framework every school year or perhaps every season. Just remember to give the child a warning notice that changes are coming…3 weeks from now, 2 weeks from now, next week….
- Include free time – this can be a time to move, improvise, sing, stretch, listen to a song on CD.
- Have a trigger for when things are going well. This could be a phrase that the teacher says and only saves for such occasion, a certain shaped sticker, a different colour that you write a note in their journal etc.
- Use hand gestures to move you through the piece instead of a metronome. This creates a more relational experience and keeps the student involved with not only the music but with you as teacher.
- …and a bonus…enjoy the little moments and know that you are contributing to a child (and their families) life in a positive, meaningful way.
Some of the information collected in this article came from the following recommended resources and videos that I hope will inspire you as well: Adamek, M. S. & Darrow, A. (2005). Music in special education. Silver Spring, MD: The American Music Therapy Association, Inc