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  • Lynne Phillips

Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes – Teaching Autistic Students

small barefoot child in field with pair of  brown shoes behind them
image credit: kdshutterman

I am getting a growing number of enquiries from parents of autistic children (and autistic adults) looking for piano lessons*. But how does teaching an autistic learner differ to teaching a non-autistic learner? Or perhaps a better question would be, how does being an autistic learner differ from being a non-autistic learner?

The first thing for any teacher to understand is that autistic students are not a homogenous group. There is no ‘autistic piano method’. As a teacher working with autistic students, you may come across learners who are non-verbal, communicate through echolalia (repeating phrases or sounds), can’t-get-a-word-in-edgeways-chatty, socially anxious, quiet, noisy, sound-averse, shy, confident, instantly good readers, struggle with notation, have great aural memories, have poor aural memories, highly creative, thrive on accuracy and detail, you get the idea…

None of which actually answers the question of learning and teaching.

Except in a way, it does.

Autism still has a lot of stigma attached to it, and a great deal of myths. Language is important too, and many autistic adults (who it should be remembered were autistic children once) are now saying that professionals working with autistic children need to look beyond the commonly used ‘deficit’ or ‘medical’ model of comparing autistic behaviours to non-autistic behaviours and marking anything different as ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ and in need of ‘intervention’. Instead, we should be supporting autistic people where they need support, and understanding autistic ways of communicating, socialising, and self-care, as being different to non-autistic, but not necessarily problematic.

All of which should give a small idea of how to approach teaching through an ‘autistic lens’, i.e. from the viewpoint of the autistic learner, rather than from a point of a professional providing piano lessons with supporting ‘interventions’ or ‘behavioural management strategies’.

The following 10 points may help:

1. Autistic children can experience high levels of stress with new environments, and the experience of new piano lessons is one of them. It may take your autistic learner far longer to settle into lessons than a non-autistic learner. If you offer a trial period as standard, it’s worth you considering extending this for autistic newcomers.

2.  Also regarding stress and anxiety, your new autistic learner may not learn anything constructive at all in the first few weeks, as the barrier of experiencing new environment and new people (i.e., you) may be a hurdle that they need to get used to before they are able to begin the process of learning. Be extra patient.

3.  Autistic children do not always express emotions in ways which non-autistic people do. For instance, I have two students currently who, when stressed with the prospect of being asked to do something that is new and potentially quite tricky, self-soothe by playing glissandos, or playing every note on the piano. This is a form of ‘stimming’ (self stimulating behaviour) and is a way of dealing with emotions. It is important that students are allowed to express themselves however they choose to do so.

4.  Autistic children may need frequent breaks during the lessons so they do not become overwhelmed with environment, sensory input, or demands of tasks. For very young children, this may need to be scheduled in with a visual timer app on a phone and a pictorial timetable, so that the child knows they have an upcoming break. The parent/carer, if in the lesson, needs to be on board with this so they do not think the child is simply wasting time.

5.  A young autistic child (pre-teen certainly) may need to be taught by ear, either fully, or just temporarily, even if they are perfectly capable of reading notation. This may be because the additional barrier of the notation is simply one barrier too many, on top of an already overwhelming environment of sensory overload, task demands, and very possibly tiredness after a day at school.

6.  An autistic child may be unable to handle you sitting near them at the piano, or playing the piano at the same time as them or near them – this is due to sensory overload, either aural or physical.  If so, it is worth recording demonstration tracks on a laptop, possibly on a loop, that can be played away from the piano, at a quieter volume that the child is comfortable with.

7.  An autistic child may enjoy repetition much more than you do! And they may wish to return to continually pieces that they know well, particularly in the beginning, sometimes repeating them continually throughout the lesson. As their teacher, you need to allow this, as this is your student enjoying the learning process. Mix their repetition with occasional new tasks, rather than barring old pieces completely.

8.  Some autistic children are extremely demand avoidant, and some have a diagnosis, or identification, of PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). This avoidance of demand means your student becomes extremely stressed and anxious when faced with demands from you (even ones you believe to be mild and completely reasonable) and you may also get reports from their parents/carers that practising is quite a challenge at times. It is absolutely crucial to understand that demand avoidant children are not being manipulative, difficult, or naughty. Instead, they are faced with extreme anxiety and stress when they feel out of control and under pressure of being ‘told what to do’. These children need an abundance of positive reinforcement as their confidence is often on the floor, and lots of choice to prevent them feeling backed up against the wall. For example, rather than giving them a piece to practice, play them 3 pieces and ask them to choose which one they would like to learn. Rather than asking them to play the right hand first, ask them whether they want to try the piece first, with which hand (or both) or whether they want to listen to you demonstrate it again. Choice, choice, choice.

9.  An autistic child may not be able to sit well on a piano stool, or perhaps not at all at first. It may be that you start off with the piano stool completely out of the way and your student stands to play, gradually introducing the stool as lessons slowly progress. Equally, your student may feel uncomfortable at the piano without their coat on, or a hat. If so, this is probably a sensory necessity or a comfort, and needs to be respected, even if it looks unusual to you.

10.  If your autistic student comes into the lesson when your studio is empty, and that changes due to a timetable change, let the parents know as soon as practicable. Your student may be completely thrown by the presence of someone unknown (another student, and potentially their parent and/or sibling also) coming and going as they get to their lesson, and this might cause significant distress and anxiety.

To create an autism friendly learning environment, we as teachers need to be looking at our teaching through the lens of autism, rather than simply trying to make our autistic students fit in with our usual practices. We need to step into the shoes of our autistic students and walk around in them for a bit, then adapt our teaching accordingly to be as constructive, positive, and supportive as we possibly can.

And in doing this, we can help to create a society with a truly inclusive music education system.

*I have based this on autistic children as the majority of my students are children, but most of what I have written could easily be applied to adults as well.

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