Autistic piano student (How do I start?)

Christine said: Mar 8, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Cello
Gridley, CA
1 posts

I’m not a piano teacher, I have done teacher training for cello and violin bk. 1 but due to the lack of piano teachers where I live I was asked by the grandmother of an autistic 6 year old boy to help her teach him piano. His grandparents bought him a childrens keyboard, two octaves because they found out that he loves singing songs on his way to and from school in his bus. She would like him to learn to play melodies. I’m going to give her songs to learn that he sings on his school bus to and from school and she’ll practice these when he can hear (she doesn’t play piano). We labeled his keys with their letter names and she’s trying to get him to find all of the letter cs on the keyboard.

My plan is to have him, #1 learn be able to play a letter on the keyboard when told a specific letter name and then #2 we’ll work on finger numbers, #3 playing a specific key with a specific finger, #4 starting a song, which his grandmother will have already been playing everyday for him to hear (Twinkle, Twinkle).

Does this plan look good? Right now he just climbs all over his grandmother and the couch so I’ll just quizz her every week and listen to her play, in hopes that he will want to eventually. I don’t have any experience with autistic children, nor with teaching piano, any advice would be very welcome!!!

Katherine said: Mar 11, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
75 posts

I am not a very experienced teacher yet, but I have been teaching a 6-yr old w Asperger’s (mild autism) for 3 months now. His attention span is either very short or very long. If he really likes doing something he will not want to transition to something different; if he does not want to do something he will refuse to. He is easily side-tracked (eg sees something in the room that interests him, or a thought comes to mind that he will want to talk about). He is very physically active and quieting down is quite hard for him. Young children in general can be this way, but he is much more extreme.

I find I have to have a lot of ideas in mind before the lesson so I am able to switch to plan B or C if my original plan does not work.

So far we have worked with a cardboard violin and dowel for “bow” (I realize you are a piano teacher). We have also done a lot of work with the twinkle variation rhythms, pitch, melody. I have been working with him on endurance—standing still through an entire variation w bow tip quiet and pointed to ceiling, etc. I also simply play for him sometimes b/c he loves to hear the violin, one of his favorite rhythm activities is when we will do a parade together around my house, him clapping the pulse and me playing something from Book I.

His mother is very involved and motivated which of course is particularly essential. One problem I am having is that she is really too involved. She repeats my instructions to him and tends to do more talking during the lesson in general than I would like, but it may be that right now this is the best way to work with him (and her). She is very sensitive to his tolerances, etc., which helps with pacing the lesson.

Farida said: Mar 13, 2013
Brooklyn, NY
1 posts

Hi, most of the autistic children and children diagnosed with PDD (on autistic spectrum) responde very well to ABA (Applied bahavioral anlysys) and very high structured environment. I would suggest to take one step at a time in your curriculum and use lots of repetitions. One step direction might help also. Most of autistic kids need visual promts, shedules and routines,routines,routines. Tokens might be a good idea of rewarding a student, or as a motivator you can use child’s favoriate activity,toy,game and etc.. Good luck!!!

Rose Costello said: Mar 15, 2013
Suzuki Association Member
Green Bay, WI
5 posts

As a piano teacher who has taught a handful of autistic students at various degrees on the spectrum, they generally are very capable and drawn to the music of the piano. The piano itself is so visual. I would take the letters OFF of the piano and have the student notice the groups of two and three black keys. Learning the letters comes from you calling them by name and showing that, for instance, the “C’s” are all to the left of the two black keys. More importantly, get the student to PLAY all the C’s, then all the D’s, etc., —or you play them—so s/he HEARS them. They generally have very keen hearing and pick these things up so well.

Also, have them listen to the Suzuki piano CD and teach those songs. You don’t need to stick to the songs he’s already doing—give him somethng new! Give words to songs if they like that. Make them up if you can’t find them onlilne! Tailor the words to the student or to nature….If you then begin to show them how to play the Suzuki songs, they will progress technically like all students should.

I recomment “Studying Suzuki Piano: More Than Music—A Handbook for Teachers, Parents and Students” by Carole L. Bigler and Valery Lloyd Watts. It gives step-by-step instructions on teaching each song which should make sense to you esp. is you’re already teaching Suzuki.

I also find that the biggest obastacle is getting them to trust you. Be patient and lovintg yet firm. And give them TIME to think and answer or repeat what you are doing, time to get their hands to do what their brain is trying to thell them. Your patience will relieve much of their own frustration—they know they don’t get it like they’re supposed to! I had a severely autistic student who was only able to ‘hunt and peck’ with one finger when he arrived, the other hand always hidden. After two years he was playing harmony on Lightly Row and other songs, all 10 fingers!

I disagree with rewards except maybe a “break” after they’ve done a certain amount of playing at the piano. Keep the reward a musical one, modeling your own enjoyment of playing. The greatest reward for them is that they can gain SO MUCH confidence in themselves because the music becomes self-correcting. They hear when a note is wrong (better than most of my ‘normal’ students!) and are eager to find the right note for the pleasant music it creats. And the song, the music that THEY create and can enjoy, is their greatest reward! I confess, though, that with the student mentioned above, he loved the sound and ‘feel’ of the lower tones (and I let him play his songs an octave lower), so as a ‘break’ we would jam together with me on a second electronic piano playing some melody while he played harmony. He loved it. I did not have eye contact when he first arrived, but when we jammed, he’d look at me and smile. That was MY reward!

If you can, get the family to get a keyboard with weighted keys. This will develop his finger strength—SOOOOO important.

Finally, “assume intelligence”. Always. And use as few words as possible.
Good luck.

~ Rose

Barb said: Mar 18, 2013
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

Thank you for the responses everyone. This Music Matters Blog on teaching the child with autism might interest you, too.

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

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