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  • Emily Tully

Music & Autism

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

I do not profess to be an autism specialist, I have colleagues far more qualified than I to discuss the topic. However, all of my knowledge of those with autism comes from hands on practical experiences; I have allowed my pupils with autism to teach me about themselves. One thing I have learned, is autism is a very short word to describe such a range of abilities, personalities and characters, and sometimes these characteristics can be misunderstood.

There is lots to consider when teaching music to those with autism to ensure their musical experience is enjoyable; keeping challenging behaviour and anxieties low is crucial. Most pupils enjoy the predictability of musical patterns, and by enforcing a routine in music sessions, pupils know what to expect. The music room is set up appropriately to consider any individual sensory processing difficulties. Sensory difficulties involves a sense being over or under reactive; a common trait in those with autism. Within music, I am particularly aware of those with a sensitivity to sound; I don’t want to distress pupils. However, I do try to identify which sounds a pupil might be sensitive to, as it could be a specific pitch, timbre or volume, it’s rare for someone to not like sound at all. Keeping anxiety levels low results in more effective music sessions.

Many of the pupils I teach are nonverbal or have a very limited vocabulary, this does not, however, mean they are any less intelligent or aware. Pupils with autism may find it easier to communicate using symbols or physical queues. Singing is a great way to encourage pupils to make vocal sounds in order to improve their verbal communication. I have some pupils who hardly speak, but given a microphone they can sing whole songs; the cause and effect triggers a reason for them to take part.

It is common for those with autism to have perfect pitch (the ability to name individual notes by ear). This is easier to spot in some pupils than others and is dependent on their ability to demonstrate these skills. Some pupils play along with a piece of music on the piano, pupils tell me the ‘C’ on a keyboard is no longer a ‘C’ because someone has pressed the transpose button, some pupils enter a lesson singing a song in key which they learned last week. It is important to channel these pupil’s abilities in music sessions so they can express themselves and “scratch” their musical “itch”. I source instrument specific lessons for pupils who are particularly talented and drawn to music which have been a great success.

Most importantly, create musical activities pupils with autism can choose to be a part of but allow them space to express their own musicality. Pupils with autism enjoy the exploration of sound and the voice it can give them, particularly if they are nonverbal. When teaching music to those with autism, I ensure there is lots to do, I abandon ship if I have to, and if something works particularly well; repeat, repeat, repeat. I get to know my pupils, what they like and who they are.

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