Tips for Teaching Instrumental Music to People With Autism

Yes, people with autism can and do play instruments in bands and ensembles!

Music is an area of special interest for many people with autism, and music therapy is a popular intervention for children and adults with autism. Strangely though, very few music instructors have any training or experience in working with people on the autism spectrum. As a result, while children with autism are encouraged to interact with music, it can be difficult to find an instructor willing and able to actually teach them to play or sing. It can be even harder to find an instructor for a teen or adult with autism.

Young man outside surrounded by band equipment holding a clarinet
Summer Clarinet

The benefits of musical instruction are, of course, many. Not only does musical instruction build cognitive and physical abilities but it’s also a wonderful source of personal pleasure. Add to that the fact that singing or playing in a musical ensemble can build social and communication skills, self-confidence, friendships, and the respect of self and others, and it’s clear that musical instruction may be well worth pursuing.

My son Tom has been taking clarinet and bassoon lessons for many years now and took piano for four years. All of his instructors have been in the same boat: none had ever worked with a person on the autism spectrum. Over time, with patience on everyone's part and creativity on the part of his instructors, Tom progressed from stuffing toys into the bell of the clarinet and playing “Hot Cross Buns” on the piano to taking part in advanced jazz band, symphony band, and summer band camp.

Tips for Teaching Music to People With Autism

How did Tom’s teachers succeed? Like all good teachers, they used a combination of different teaching tools, a lot of patience, a sense of humor, and a good deal of flexibility. In addition, these techniques were particularly effective:

  1. A mix of multisensory teaching techniques seems to work well. Tapping rhythms, clapping rhythms, using visual aids to teach note values, even moving around the room to "dance" quarter, half and eight note values can help.
  2. Since kids with autism often have perfect pitch, it’s worth checking to see if your child also has that unusual ability to name a note without an aural reference point. Many kids with autism can also play by ear. Tom’s teachers built on his ability to play by ear, having him repeat musical phrases without worrying about which note he was playing.
  3. Associating note names with sounds can be a better first step than associating note names with symbols on the page. Once the learner knows the notes and their names, they can progress to reading notation more fluently.
  4. Visual aids such as flashcards can help a great deal in teaching notation.
  5. Choosing pieces based on existing interest is a great way to go. Our son loves anything he already has heard in the film Fantasia, or even in the children's cartoon series "Little Einsteins."
  6. Some people with autism have "synesthesia," an ability to associate musical notes with colors, shapes, etc. It might be worthwhile asking your student what colors or shapes he sees in his imagination when he hears certain notes. Our son sees notes as the colors in the rainbow spectrum (ROY G BIV), so that C=Red, D=Orange, etc.
  7. It’s important for teachers to know that kids with autism, even those with few or no words, may have significant talent and little or no stage fright. Teachers should seriously consider preparing autistic students for recitals–though it’s important to practice not only the music but also the process of reading the program, coming up on stage, playing a piece, and then leaving the stage appropriately.

Preparing a Person With Autism for an Ensemble Concert

If you are hoping to include your child with autism in an ensemble of any sort, preparation is very important. Ensemble-based music making is predictable and repetitive, making it a good way for people with autism to work with other people without the stress of novel interactions. On the other hand, it does require musical competence and an ability to remain quiet when others are singing or playing. In addition, school bands and orchestras are large and loud, and stage lights are bright; all of these sensory issues can be a concern.

Here are a few tips for preparing an autistic musician for a group performance:

  1. People with autism may have a hard time following spoken direction (“OK, let’s turn to page 54 and start at measure 6”). A band leader, helper, support person, or peer buddy can sit next to the student to help him find the right spot on the page. Depending upon the autistic person’s needs, that aide or buddy may also need to help with finding the right seat and moving on/off a stage.
  2. Be sure your student understands when and how long to rest between phrases. If it’s helpful, tape the band and have the student practice his/her part with the tape.
  3. Practice the entire experience of coming on stage, playing, and leaving the stage. If there will be a need to move music stands or other equipment, be sure that experience is part of the practice. If bright lights will be on, include the lights as part of the practice experience.
  4. Be aware of the autistic child’s placement in the band. Some people with autism are sensitive to sound, and seating a child with autism next to the timpani can be a bad choice!
  5. Everyone needs practice, but people with autism should also receive additional instruction as needed so that music is learned accurately. It can be tough for a person with autism to unlearn misread musical information.

Bottom line, while it is possible that autism will stand in the way of musical ability, it is equally likely that autism will IMPROVE musical ability. The problems faced by a person with autism typically relate not to the production of music, but to the ability to read and understand notation and to manage the sensory issues connected with ensemble playing. People with autism may also take a longer time to learn the basics – notation, dynamics, note value, etc. Often, though, the rewards are well worth the instructor’s patience, hard work, and dedication.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.