Strategies for Teaching Autistic Students in Your School Music Program

Strategies for Teaching Autistic Students in Your School Music Program

In recent years, there has been an increase in the diagnosis of autism among today’s youth population. As a result, music teachers have seen an increase in the number of autistic students in their classrooms.

Autism is a spectrum of disorders with characteristics that range from high-functioning Asperger’s to classic autism, in which children have significant communication and learning disabilities, In general, autistic children have difficulties with subtle forms of communication (visual cues) and with developing social skills.

What Does This Mean for the Music Teacher?

It means that you may have students in your class who are intellectually able, but lack social skills needed in a group performance situation. You may have students who have learning and physical disabilities, and who need the services of an assigned teacher assistant while in your music class, along with various therapies throughout the school day.

How Can You Accommodate This Student and Provide a Meaningful Experience?

Many famous and successful people have had autism, including Albert Einstein. A few well-known musicians with autism include Glenn Gould, Bela Bartok, Susan Boyle (of American Idol fame) and maybe even Michael Jackson, the King of Pop! These people are known for their outstanding musical abilities. So it is possible for kids with autism to do well in your music class. However, these people are also known for their idiosyncrasies and “behaviors” outside the norm, seemingly attributable to having autism.

What Are Some “Behaviors” You May See in Your Students?

  • Obsessive tendencies related to performance skill development
  • Obsessive need for routine (including classroom procedural routine)
  • Social skill challenges (no filter; no emotional nuance with peers; lack of empathy)
  • Motor skill development issues related to development of certain performance skills
  • Clumsy movements, with an instrument in hand (DANGER!)
  • Issues w/ eye contact
  • Stiffness of playing/motor skill development issues
  • Attention span issues
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Sensitivity to loud noises

What Strategies Can Be Used to Best Serve All Students?

While my experience is as a strings teacher/orchestra director, I believe that the strategies that I have used and researched will work in most music classes. Here are a few:

  1. Talk with the parent(s). Parents deal with their kid’s autism every day. Agree to work as a team to help the student be successful!
  2. Get to know each student’s special education teachers/related staff. They know his/her Individual Education Program (IEP). Get familiar with that student’s IEP and accommodations. This helps you design appropriate lessons for him/her. Plus- IT’S THE LAW!
  3. Find out how your student learns. (Are they an aural learner? Visual? Tactile/kinesthetic?) Find ways to adjust your teaching style to his/her learning style (maybe the student needs a daily or weekly list of learning activities/music class procedures to establish a “routine”).
  4. Re-write music parts. Consider simplifying parts to match the student’s level of motor skill development or intellectual ability. You might also have students play on fewer concert selections. (Concerts are not the norm and may create anxiety for the autistic student; doing less, but still making a contribution, may make for a better experience for him/her.)
  5. Use peer teaching. Assign a “buddy” in class (buddy helps the student with counting; helps the autistic student keep pace with the rest of the class/at a concert).
  6. Use mnemonics/color coding. Color coding is a visual aid that helps with recognition and association of notes. Mnemonics are patterns of letters, ideas, or associations that assist the brain in remembering. 
  7. Mnemonic Example, Set to Music:
    F is on the first space,
    F is on the first space.

    Simplifying Instruction Example:
    Boom Chicks (alternating quarter notes in 4/4 time): “They play on the “Booms; you play on the “Chicks.”

  8. Leverage recordings. Find recordings/audio clips of music being rehearsed/prepared for performances and download them to playing devices for students to use during solo practice.

Be Encouraged!

You can do it! I have personal experience with autistic students who have had rocky starts in music classes, but have gone on to great success throughout their public school experience. I’ve seen these students graduate with college music degrees! Yes, we have to do more to help these students be successful, but we music teachers always “go the extra mile,” don’t we?

Janine Parnell brings more than 20 years’ experience to her current role as orchestra director at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC. Student orchestras under her direction have consistently received numerous awards and honors. Dr. Parnell, a violinist and violist, has performed professionally in orchestras and chamber ensembles as well as with noted contemporary Christian/gospel, jazz, and rock artists. She has also been a guest conductor, workshop presenter, and summer music camp artist faculty member.
Dr. Parnell earned her B.M.Ed. (cum laude) from Winthrop College (University), her M.Mus. from Winthrop College (University), and her D.M.A from the Catholic University of America.

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