Music, Autism and Special Needs
I’ll never forget the first time a mom gave me the heads up that her son had autism prior to his first guitar lessons. My only reference to this condition was from Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. The boy was 13 and his name was Spencer. I was a little nervous about what this kid was going to be like and how this first lesson would go down.
Spencer showed up to his lesson and crawled up like a ball in the corner. After 15 minutes of this has mom decided to leave with him. Spencer came back last week. He was talking a mile a minute and was excited to show me all the things he’d be practicing over the week on guitar. I was scratching my head. Was this the same kid? Was this Spencer’s twin? This was my first exposure to working with kids on the Autism spectrum.
I taught a girl once with down syndrome and I realized within a few minutes that I was not going to be able to conduct a lesson with her the way I typically would. It was very clear to me that this was not going to be about building skills and working towards establishing some basic mastery of the instrument.
I asked the girls mom,what it is that she was looking for; what her idea of success was. Her mom said, look, I just want her to come in and have a good time and just make a connection with music. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I would tune her guitar to an open chord so she could just strum all six strings. I would just play songs that I know that she liked on the piano.
She would just strum along, just that one open chord and we would sing the song. And that was it, that was the whole lesson. She loved it and her mom was so happy. It really meant so much to her. Having that conversation first with the parents as to what it is that they’re looking for and what success looks like, will really get your lessons in the right direction.
My guest today is Matt Maher. He is the music director at Coeur Academy in St. Louis. He recently received his master’s degree in arts and teaching and he is a former music instructor at my former music studio. Listen to this episode to learn how teach music to kids with special needs
[The following are choice quotes from Matt Maher]
Teaching Kids with Special Needs
One of the things, I think people that just aren’t that familiar with it and don’t understand that it’s a spectrum. It’s amazing that they’re all technically diagnosed with the same thing because they’re just so different. So everything from the way they learn to the way that their bodies physically operate is so different.
I teach other classes like math at our school. It’s like you are writing a lesson plan for each kid in the class. You’re not writing a lesson plan for the class. I think that’s kind of how you have to think about it with the music instruction in band as well…So many of the kids struggle with reading comprehension. So when we look at reading comprehension and you look at something like a chord chart or sheet music or even the lyrics to a song, they all tend to really struggle with kind of a deeper understanding of a second layer, like sheet music. It’s multiple layers of something that’s happening here, where you’re going, even where the notes are placed, how each flag resembles a different rhythmic structure, where the notes are placed on the staff, has the different notes themselves. A lot of that is just a lot of information for some of these kits.
Patients, Autism and Processing Music
The biggest thing I think with teaching them (kids with special needs) is there are some things they will learn just as a typical kid would. But if you don’t have the patients to understand that this kid is processing it differently than a kid you may be used to interacting with.
With a kid like Myles it tends to be a lot of breaking things down, making them simpler and then letting him elaborate beyond that as well. So while a kid like Myles may be able to physically play drum beats that are much more advanced than what he can read, the issue is that he can’t replicate things or play things that have actual cohesive concept to the tune. Like play this drum part that is in this song. He would play something that sounded like it, but he would not play what was asked to be the exact beat with him.
Making Music Lessons Fun
What we do with a few of my students, and they always feel silly. It’s kind of reminds me of one of someones going in for singing lessons, finds out that they’re going to have to do sirens .They get to get really silly. So what we do is we just right off the bat, we’ll get really silly and I’ll beat box something. So I’ll give him a beat box something then he has to beat box that back to me. Then what we’ll do is sit at the drums and go, okay, what does that beat box actually sound like on the drum set.
One student I’ve been teaching through sheet music and kind of finding out that he’s actually learning it by watching me and learning by ear. He’s not actually learning it through the sheet music. I noticed he never even looked at a piece of sheet music in his life. So he was able to learn all these things through watching me play. At first it kind of upset me because I was like, well, I wasn’t sure if I was failing as him, as a teacher and that I wasn’t teaching him properly the way that he should learn it.
Different Styles of Learning
I have a high school student who she will learn black and white. Immediately you give her a sheet music, you just tell her these two things work together. But if you just gave her a melody and said play that melody for me…she just can’t do it. You see this disconnect of the actual tune to a concept on the instrument. So those are the biggest differences I think between kids that can learn through sheet music and the kids that can’t comprehend it at all.
With autism, I think one of the biggest things that people don’t understand is it’s like a shaping behavior thing for some of the younger kids. It’s just, I mean it’s so hard to talk about because it it is so case to case, I could talk about shaping behavior and dealing with a kid who has all the talent in the world that just can’t behave in class, can’t sit still for more than one minute. And then you can talk about the kids that’s on the spectrum, who will sit there with their mouth closed and listen to every word you say but does not understand a single word you’re saying, you or does, but just you have to reexplain it and you have to just keep delivering the same content over and over. So it is just such a case to case thing…We know that typical kids are all different learners too, but it can be generalized much easier than it can be when we’re talking about
What Parents Want Out of Music Lessons
I think one of the biggest things is patients for me has been the biggest thing. You have to understand that, you know, the learning curve could be pretty severe. So you have to be ready to just re-explain things, repackage concepts, be ready to teach something a new way. But I think by far it’s keep it simple. Make sure that they’re enjoying it. Because I think one of the things that, you know, we tend to forget as educators is we want everyone of our students to succeed and be incredible and we want the parents to come in and see the success that you did and your worth is there. Because you know, without you, you’re not validating your job. It’d be like any other job where if you’re not, you know, feeling like you’re completing your job, you feel like you’re failing or you feel like you may not have any worth to these people. But I think a lot of these parents, they just are happy that there are social interactions happening, that their child is respecting and listening to somebody other than them, that they’re learning something new.
Special Needs, Fear and Change
Kids with autism tend to fear a lot of change. Schedules are a huge thing. This kid’s coming into your classroom and they’e never even met you. They’re gonna come in this little room and sit with you. They’re either going to be terrified or they’re going to be angry and you have to just know that that’s what you’re walking into
These kids are so, so sensory dependent. Some kids will love to hear you play or to hear you playing with them. There’s a lot that goes into that first lesson, but I think it’s about building the relationship so much more than it’s about getting them on the right foot of the instrument.
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Intro music: Dusted by Fojimoto
Transition music: Levi Simon
Outro music:Rain and Revolution by City Breathing