Kristen Van Dyke, MT-BC, LPMT
Sara Longwell, MT-BC, LPMT
Music is one of the only things in the world that truly connects humans to other humans as well as connecting one to oneself. Listening to or playing music can create unique individual and shared experiences. Music education can play a pivotal role in a child’s life. While children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder may experience the world in a very unique way, chances are, music is a part of it. Whether you are a parent or a music teacher working with a student diagnosed with ASD, you may be interested to learn about how music lessons can work for your child or student. Can a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder be successful in music education?
Yes! Through a thorough understanding of autism spectrum disorders, the benefits of music education, how autism can present itself in a music lesson, and specific strategies that can help set the teacher and student up for success, a child diagnosed with ASD can absolutely be successful in music education.
What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
The term “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) describes a group of developmental disabilities that can vary in severity, but share similar characteristics. The three core characteristics of ASD include:
- Social interaction impairments
- Presence of repetitive, restricted, and/or stereotypic behaviors
- Communication and language development impairments (Kern, 2013)
Signs and symptoms
Parents tend to be very aware of their child’s development and the milestones they are expecting their child to hit. It is understandable that when parents or educators begin to notice a difference in a child that may indicate a developmental delay, there is some concern. Autism spectrum disorder may present differently in different children, but the following signs and symptoms can be good clues that further assessment is needed:
- Lack of understanding nonverbal behaviors (facial expression, eye gaze, gestures, etc.)
- Little interest in engaging with peers/adults and more interest in toys
- Difficulty understanding others’ emotions
- Avoiding eye contact
- Receptive and/or expressive language impairments (difficulty answering a question, following a direction, etc.)
- Not able to participate in make-believe or social play
- Repetitive mannerisms
- Not receptive to change
- Sensory processing differences
ASD cannot be reliably predicted in pregnancy through genetic testing, blood testing, or any study of family history. Once a child begins to demonstrate signs or symptoms, various screenings and diagnostic evaluations are completed with the child’s physician and/or educational team at school. A reliable diagnosis can be given from approximately 2 years old and forward. Currently, there is no cure for ASD. However, early interventions such as behavioral therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, music therapy, and more can help reduce the severity of the symptoms and help develop the skills necessary for daily living, social interactions, and regulating emotions and behaviors.
What are the benefits of music instruction?
For any child, engaging in group or individual music education can be extremely beneficial. The skills acquired in a music education setting can easily be applied and transferred to other life settings. These benefits can also apply to children with ASD. Many times, music can serve as a language in itself that connects individuals of all ages, cultures, family backgrounds, and/or ability levels. Children that have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may even find musical interactions come easier than human ones. Possible benefits may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Social interaction opportunities
- Opportunities to grow and develop self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-expression
- Working toward a specific goal and managing emotions such as fear, anxiety, triumph, success, etc. (e.g., preparing for a recital performance)
- Right and left brain stimulation (including the areas that improve language and reasoning)
- Emotional development
- Increased motor skills and coordination
- Auditory skill development
- Discipline and time management
As stated above, music is one of the only activities that stimulates both hemispheres of the brain. This can be instrumental in the development of social skills, communication skills, motor skills, cognitive skills, and emotional skills. For students diagnosed with ASD, participating in music learning can be a natural motivator to aid in addressing some of their symptoms and help them to adapt to daily living.
How can ASD can affect a music lesson?
Typical signs and symptoms of ASD were addressed above, but let’s get specific to a music lesson. Even though music is a natural motivator and the source of something very engaging, students with ASD may still have difficulty managing some of their symptoms in a music lesson. The following behaviors may impact the music learning experience:
- Auditory skills
- Difficulty following multi-step directions
- Not listening attentively
- Repeating phrases the teacher says
- Trouble tuning out distracting sounds
- Less verbal responsiveness and engagement
- Disruptive behaviors or tics
- Fixating on touching a particular part of an instrument
- Fine or gross motor challenges
- Sensitivities to physical tasks associated with instruments
- Social and Emotional
- Fixation on routines
- Personal space challenges
- Inability to be flexible
- Obsession with topics either related or unrelated to lesson
- Lack of respectful tone a teacher may expect from a student
- Lack of warmth or expression in response to fun and games
- Difficulty understanding musical concepts such as notation, rhythm, etc.
- Unable to read lesson book or lesson activities accurately
- Short attention span
As a teacher, it can be very frustrating to not get the results you are expecting in a lesson. It is very easy to assume that all students will be able to follow along with the prepared plan and reach the desired outcomes. However, it is important to acknowledge that every student is unique. Every student with autism spectrum disorder is unique as well.
Teaching tips and strategies for students with ASD
Due to the unique nature of every student, it can feel overwhelming to plan and feel confident as a teacher. These teaching tips and strategies are certainly not a one-size-fits-all solution, but can hopefully provide resources and ideas to help feel confident when working with students diagnosed with ASD.
Consult the experts!
When working with a student with ASD, there is no greater expert than the student themselves and their parents. Building rapport is essential for a music educator to develop trust and an effective working relationship. Depending on the receptive and expressive language abilities of the student, a teacher may ask the following questions to the student and/or parents:
- What does the child excel in at school?
- What does the child’s day look like before music time?
- What other interests or hobbies does the child have?
- How does the child learn and retain information best?
- What rewards motivate this child?
- What sensitivities does the child have that may affect the lesson?
Often, a music teacher only sees a student for 30-60 minutes per week. There is so much more to a child than what the teacher may see in that short time frame. Simply asking questions can be a direct way to find useful information. The goal is to make music time as productive and successful as possible.
As mentioned previously, children with ASD often thrive on routine and predictability. Putting a structure in place for a music lesson can help them to feel safe and eliminate the anxiety of any surprises. Teachers may find it helpful to make a visual schedule that is reviewed at the beginning of each lesson. Using a visual schedule provides many benefits; the student can know exactly what to expect, and the teacher can implement strategies being used in other areas of the student’s life. For example, if the teacher communicates with the parents and uses the same schedule template as the parents, the child’s speech therapist, and the child’s behavior therapist, the student now has consistency across the board. This helps set the music teacher and the student up for success. The music teacher may also use a consistent reward system that is being used with the student. For instance, if the child works for 10 minutes of iPad time throughout the day by completing tasks, the same can be done in the music lesson.
(Visual schedule example: Note the use of images to reinforce the tasks. Depending on the student’s capabilities, a music teacher may use a combination of words and pictures or just pictures. The student can also engage in crossing things off the list as they are complete.)
- Use music that is familiar to the student. A favorite song can be a great way to motivate a student. It could be used as a goal to play on an instrument, a tool to practice keeping the beat while listening, or even an ear training exercise. When someone listens to their favorite song, it automatically provides a sense of comfort and familiarity. This can be a great tool for students with ASD.
- Watch the laguaged used. Giving simple, clear, specific directions can help students with receptive language difficulties. Teachers should avoid being too abstract or complex.
- Take sensitivities seriously. Students with autism spectrum disorder may experience sensitivities to certain sounds or other environmental triggers. These should be taken seriously by music teachers. Sensitivities can overwhelm and shut down the brains of children with ASD so that nothing else gets in.
- Use multisensory techniques. Usually a concept can be introduced using kinesthetic, visual, aural, or verbal techniques. Students diagnosed with ASD may require multiple strategies to go about the same concept. For example, if a student is learning about the quarter note, the teacher may present a picture of it, have the student feel the quarter note in their bodies by tapping along with a metronome, have the student count out loud, or describe to the teacher what it is using simple language.
- Adjust social expectations. Children with ASD may not respond in predictable ways to music lessons. Music teachers should try not to take blunt or challenging language personally, but rather be positive and encouraging. Learn to read each child’s unique signals.
When working with students with autism spectrum disorder, the goal is to meet each child where they are. A successful teacher uses a child’s strengths and abilities to set them up for success. A successful teacher is also flexible and willing to change their plan for the benefit of the student. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in music lessons for your child with ASD. We are committed to bringing a unique music experience to each and every child.
Kristen Van Dyke and Sara Longwell are board-certified music therapists in addition to music educators. Holding the credential MT-BC indicates extensive education, training, and experience with students who hold this diagnosis.
Check out our other blogs on:
Department of Health and Human Services: Aging and Disability Services Division. (n.d.). Autism myths and misconceptions. http://adsd.nv.gov/uploadedFiles/adsdnvgov/content/Programs/Autism/ATAP/Autism%20Myths%20and%20Misconceptions.pdf
Kern, P. (2012). Introduction and Research. In P. Kern & M. E. Humpal (Authors), Early childhood music therapy and autism spectrum disorders: Supporting children and their families (pp. 23-38). London, UK: Jessica Kingsley.
N. (2018, April 25). 20 Important Benefits of Music In Our Schools. NAfME. https://nafme.org/20-important-benefits-of-music-in-our-schools/