Autistic children are known to do very well in music lessons. For many of them, it is a great way to explore creativity and develop a myriad of skills. Many experts recommend music lessons for children with disabilities, such as autism. However, for many music teachers, these can represent a challenge. Many ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapists will try to learn just enough piano so that they can teach their own patients – however there is a difference between “knowing a little piano” and being a full-on piano educator. Knowing techniques and approaches to help autistic children learn piano is a great way to widen your clientele and be seen as an expert in this niche.
The first thing you need to realize when teaching an autistic child is that your teaching approach will need to be entirely different. Be aware of physical limitations. For example, if your student can’t sit still for 2 minutes and is prone to moving around unexpectedly, you might want to consider having your student stand up at the piano, rather than sitting on the bench. You also want to ask parents if the child has any particular “fixation”. For example, some autistic children are obsessed with numbers and will work very well when everything is related to numbers. You have to really understand your student and have all the information on hand in relation to things he or she understands or do that are proper to him or her. You will discover your student’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as his or her thought process over several weeks, so it might take some time for you to feel entirely comfortable teaching the lesson.
You will also need to be very patient and understand that your student may or may not be able to focus for long periods of time. If one hour is too long, shorten your lessons to 30 minutes. Make sure to incorporate fun activities with flash cards and work with rewards. Many autism specialists work with token boards – once the student has played a song or named notes following the number of token on the boards, the student is allowed a special reward (which is to be determined by you or the parents).
Working with autistic students is very particular and you should work closely with the student’s parents and their ABA specialist, if they have one. Music can greatly enrich their lives and help them develop as individuals and teaching disabled students can be immensely rewarding!