Help teaching students with autism, learning difficulties
Found in: Special Needs & Learning Differences
Hello Wise teachers,
I am a BRAND NEW teacher only 9 weeks old and find myself with unusual students, not being a mother, also inexperienced with children.
I have ended up with 2 children 6 and 7, both with undiagnosed learning difficulties. The 3rd student is a 65 yr old senior (only 5 lessons old) who is questioning everything and not following instructions (I suspect claiming territory).
The 6 yr old girl I’m sure with autism (mother finally admitted & getting tested/diagnosed) & the 7 yr old boy I suspect with mild Asperger’s. The boy is progressing ok but displays similar fine motor skill, co-ordination & behavioral problems, to the little girl, but we ARE managing slowly, with the foundation program.
The little girl is proving very challenging. I did stop teaching her 4 weeks ago due to my inability, inadequacies and lack of confidence but the mother was so disappointed in my termination, really wanted to continue, believing in me & the program, and of course wanting more, for her child. So here I am again…….
We have lowered our expectations but still I’m not sure how to tackle all this. I also don’t want to give up because we have a special needs school nearby so this is potentially more business for me, should I succeed here. Strange thing is, years ago I actually thought I’d like to work with these people, as a specialty, just now I’m finding it more challenging than I expected.
I have started basic improv with her, black keys only at this point, but coordination is an issue, separate hands sort of ok, not great, but BH won’t work together. She can play Night Storm RH only but does not hold the hand 5/5 & sometimes the thumb takes over, in place of other fingers.
Dreams was too much too hard. Holding a chord is proving difficult, she is unable to hold a pencil, or freeze her hand in position to move it, even though she knows it’s finger numbers 1,3,5. I was going to try Honey Dew next week but now don’t think I can. She was also unable to play NS with me playing Night Storm Acc (duet) so I’m guessing that’s too much noise/info overload. (Coincidentally, the little boy can play Honey Dew on his own, but not with us/parents singing, by his side, and had the same problem with me playing accomp duet – unable).
They are both smart & I know they can understand, but it’s not getting thru properly, to differing degrees.
What can or should I do? Any advice is gratefully accepted and appreciated.
Melanie W., Michigan
I am by no means a music therapist and have no training in special needs. The autistic spectrum is so broad, so I am just sharing from my own experience with a now 29 year old blind, autistic student. She is unable to place five fingers over five keys at once, but still enjoys her playlist which is about 23 songs long. At every lesson, she begins with Dreams Come True and pretty much plays the whole playlist. She needs predictibility to feel secure, so in order to teach her the Foundation 2 songs–she hates anything new–I scatter the songs she may be struggling with throughout her playlist, by saying, “Let’s make a deal–you get to play two songs, then I get to choose.” Now that we have been doing it awhile, she just expects it.
My big point–go slow and celebrate the smallest successes. When you introduce a new song, just begin with one sentence if you need to. Use any external speaker words you can find–bottom to top, B-M-T,counting. It takes us months to learn one song, but it brings my student so much joy to play the piano, it is worth it all.
If you can work with a therapist who understands what works with your student, and make the necessary adjustments, that would be the best thing. I have learned so much about my student’s needs through talking with her mom and a caregiver that knows her well.
Laurie Richards, Nebraska
Great input, Melanie.
I would not proclaim to be an expert by any stretch either, but I have worked with quite a few students with special needs and have an adult son with Down syndrome, so perhaps I can share my perspective.
First and foremost, I would encourage anyone not to focus on a particular label or diagnosis and how to work within that. (Not saying you are, btw). Rather, simply look for the abilities that are there and what you DO have to work with. This is more a mindset thing. The parents and teachers who work with the child can give you the best insight into what will help your student be successful.
I teach a class to adults with special needs through a local organization. This semester we are doing a ‘singalong class’ and learning how to play some simple accomp. to songs they like. We’re doing Eye of the Tiger first! Super fun. Often these students have fine motor issues – like very rigid hands or fingers, or malformed fingers. When there are fine motor issues, adaptations are often necessary. Honestly I “just try stuff”.
A few specific things I have been trying recently:
- Some have great difficulty with 3-note chords, so we adapt to 2-note chords – either 1 & 3 or 1 & 5 of the chord, using whatever fingers give the best result.
- I will make their hands my ‘puppets’, pushing down the appropriate fingers for them – then their brains can feel it, and often they are able to continue playing it when I take my hand away. That tells me they have the capability.
- As an incentive to keep trying something that is difficult – whether 5SS, a chord, finding C, whatever – I use my digital keyboard. I turn the volume all the way down and ask them to play the challenging thing (no sound). As soon as they are doing it, I will turn the volume up. The fun part is that I change the sound effect every time, and they don’t know what to expect. It might be a guitar sound, jazz scat, organ, or even a dog bark. They enjoy the anticipation.
I do like to encourage them to use those rigid fingers more, because you never know what may transpire – they might discover that they can increase the usage of their hands.
Since your student is pretty young, try to incorporate some games. Drums are always a big hit to practice sentences, chords, finger combinations, whatever. Play a duet with her while she improvises using a concept that you are working on. (example: if you are working on playing a two-note C chord, she keeps playing that while you play Honey Dew or a blues song or whatever)
Real general tip: be open to just trying stuff and not being too rigid about following the curriculum verbatim. Bring music to her life in whatever manner she will succeed. Be open with her mom about the process, about how you will approach it, about how you are unsure sometimes what will work well but are willing to keep trying, with her support at home.
I am so glad this topic was posted. I am also a new teacher and have been asked to teach a young woman with Down Syndrome. We’ve only had three lessons but I was beginning to feel that I was doing more harm than good by trying to do the 5SS and finding middle C. I suggested to her mother that the pre-Foundation program might be more fun for her but she wants me to keep coming.
Thank you Laurie for your suggestions and I’ll put them into practice. I think patience is the key.
Teri D., Iowa
Relax, be patient. I agree with Laurie and Melanie, both have great ideas. For any learning problem, break down the components.
Years ago I was taught that every person has some type of learning challenge and that as teachers we were to somehow make every student successful.
With Dreams Come True, my challenged students learn the melody in the right hand and then just begin with the C in the left hand working up to adding the other notes. Then I have them make up their own left hand part.
We also do not begin Jackson Blues until I am certain that the student is capable of playing at least 2-notes (the outside notes) in the chord.
Also as Laurie stated, if they are having difficulty with the 3-note chord, just use the outside notes.
I also have a behavioral autistic student who at first hid and cried. I just ignored the behavior and started playing Jackson Blues and all the Level 1 songs. It quickly became a game and now I begin playing, and she “appears” when I play the songs that she knows. It has become “our” special sign that it is time to begin. (It’s also great for keeping me up-to-date with the playlist for each level.)
Clapping, drumming on the piano bench, singing along or writing new words to the songs are all ways that I see growth with these students. Playing simple games also works well for my students. It gives a little variety and usually creates laughs.
A student I have who is on the autism spectrum had me really ready to give in with her, as I felt a total failure. She is now 12 years old and has very poor fine motor control (her schools diagnosis – not mine, and they are correct) and extremely poor concentration.
After 2 years I didn’t feel we had come very far at all until I listed what we did. She can play 5SS ascending (not descending), she can find and play C’s although sometimes tries to make out she can’t.
Instead of giving up I decided to obtain her parents permission to chat with her school teacher. I came away with a MUCH MORE realistic idea of what to expect with regard to achievements and realised she actually had learned quite a bit. I was also armed with the information that, in her case, I could have no activity lasting longer than 2 minutes. As we have 20 minute lessons this then governed how I organised her lesson plan. I was also armed, as one of the other teachers mentioned, with the knowledge that predictability is very important so I have pictures to suggest each project we will do and try to keep them in the same order each week. If I want to change the order I show her the new order before we actually launch into the lesson.
Since this she has been much happier coming to and participating in lessons and I have felt much more satisfied with our lesson outcomes.
Talking about doing what will work with each person – Allie’s goal is to be able to play the Nokia phone theme. We are doing it in 4 note sentences and after 10 weeks she was able to do the first sentence so we’ve now started the second sentence. It brings a smile to my face every time we start this little project as I just think it’s such a funny little goal. I’m also working on 5SS descending 2 notes at a time so she can now play finger 5 to 4. We have just started working on 4 to 3. Each lesson we do this little exercise 5x only and I find sometimes Allie does a couple of extras.
You’ve got some wonderful ideas from all the other teachers and I’ve got some good ideas from them now too SO THANKS EVERYONE and THANKS Kathy for bringing up the topic.
Kerry V., Australia
Thanks for this post and all responses. I agree with you all. I guess we are so used to expecting some kind of ‘time frame’ in the learning that these are extra challenges for us as teachers in questions such as “Am I doing this right for the student / family?” “Is this taking too long?” etc. However, as Marg did, she looked at what they have done. And in terms of acknowledging the student, they really have come a long way. If you have family, student and teacher working in alignment, then all you can do is enjoy the process.
And challenges! I see these as nothing but teaching me more ways to work with, and accept, people with special needs. I too, many years ago, came to the realisation that we all have some form of learning disability. It just shows up more in some than others.
Enjoy! Working with people of any level of special needs is such a challenging but wonderfully enjoyable experience.