What is autism and how can we best support our music students that have been diagnosed with or whom we may suspect have autistic tendencies?
Autism affects how a person interacts with people around them. Often those with high-functioning autism are highly intelligent with an uncanny ability to focus and achieve incredible results. Friendship will be desired but hard for them to seek and harder to maintain. The autistic can often appear rude and unempathetic. They will require patient understanding from the people in their lives. Interpreting non-verbal communication (body-language and facial expressions) can be a real challenge. Even verbal communication can be hard to interpret; subtleties of language such as sayings or humor being taken too literally.
My son was diagnosed as having high-functioning autism (once termed Asperger Syndrome) when he was seven and also as a private music teacher, I have enjoyed teaching students with autism. The thing I’ve learned over the years is that every autistic person is unique but there are a few common themes (in no particular order):
Fear of change
I remember telling my son we were going to visit a museum but when we arrived, I spontaneously thought it would be fun to visit the art gallery next door first. Well, what a mistake that proved to be! A massive meltdown ensued because I had inadvertently changed the structure of his day. The lesson: the autistic mind often needs a fixed routine that it can rely on. This brings the person security. In music lessons, stick to a certain lesson structure. If you absolutely need to deviate, give plenty of warning. Try to avoid changing lessons to a different day of the week or time even as this will create anxiety.
Most autistic people have a “special interest.” This will be something that they will be obsessed with thinking and talking about. My son has had several of these over the years. We have no influence over what he chooses to focus his attentions on or how long the obsession will last for. He just latches onto something with incredible intensity. He’s been through a dinosaur, “angry birds,” and currently is going through a “MineCraft” period. A little trick my wife and I have learned is that if our son is having a fear or anger meltdown, that simply asking him a question about his current “special interest” has the magical ability to resolve the situation in a moment! I’ve found in music lessons that my autistic students have an incredible ability to focus on a certain aspect of music but it can be very challenging to get them to work on other aspects of music that they don’t deem important. For example, they might absolutely love working on pieces and as a result, will play them to an incredible standard but getting them to practice scales or sight-reading might seem impossible. Trying to help them take ownership is the secret by helping them to understand how working on scales will actually improve their pieces yet further or how sight-reading will help them learn their song (and their next song) quicker!
Autistic pupils can often appear far away at times giving very poor eye contact. Often you can say something and it can seem like they haven’t heard you but remember the “6-second rule.” If they still haven’t responded, without saying a word, try a simple nudge on the arm, come into their space a little and their gaze with your eyes and then repeat your instruction. Giving a sequence of instructions never works well but instead break down any instructions as simply as possible, patiently waiting for them to respond to one request before giving them the next one. As always, positive reinforcement in the form of sincere praise works wonders.
Be prepared to hear some, at times, blunt, even rude comments. They will say things exactly how they see it without wrapping things up or filtering. Don’t take offense or react. This is the way they communicate and you will, on other occasions appreciate the honesty.
Try to avoid putting them into challenging environments. Exams, competitions or concerts should be approached with caution as these situations will often be a source of extreme anxiety with sometimes destructive outcomes.
People with autism can be over or under sensitive to noise, light, smell etc. so making their learning area as comfortable as possible will really help them settle and enjoy their music lesson.
Autism is for life! Those with high-functioning autism can appear to be very normal and therefore, some people in their life can be dismissive that there is anything different and explain their somewhat dysfunctional behaviour as being merely naughty or rude. Acknowledgement by both the person with autism and those around them can go a long way to alleviate stress and aid progress. Although dealing with certain aspects of their life might not be natural, it doesn’t mean it can’t be nurtured. Sometimes other conditions like dyspraxia, dyslexia or ADHD can be associated too with autism. Those with high-functioning autism can and do succeed as successful musicians. Some experts think that even the great Beethoven was autistic!
Do you have experience teaching students with autism? What approaches have you found beneficial?