Autism, Kids and Piano

I’ve had a good deal of experience teaching piano to kids with various levels of autism and Aspberger’s syndrome and can safely say to parents that there may well be a dose of musical genius in each one of these children.

My first experience was with a girl of ten, delightful and giggly but shy, and very gifted at doing what I asked at the piano. I could ask her to do anything, slow it down, change key, play it staccato, play it legato, she instinctively knew what I meant. And she was calm and collected, cooperative and diligent, at least in terms of the piano.

It was only in a conversation with her Mom that I discovered that this child had Aspberger’s, a high functioning type of autism. I was flabbergasted. I could not believe that this child was in any way disabled. In fact I found her far more able at the piano than most other “normal” kids.

And that sets the pattern for my experience with autism and piano: there is a solid connection between the two.

If you have an autistic child, it is very likely that one outlet for their expression may be music at the piano. I have found that these children adore both the sound and the musical theory behind the piano.

My most recent student, who has autism, is practically the definition of childhood musical genius.

Let’s call him David (not his real name.)

David is five and is the warmest and bubbliest child that age you would ever meet. I was prepared for autism, whatever that is, but found a child who loved the piano, and wanted to play.

So we immediately embarked on Piano by Number, a choice I made because of his age, not his condition. We could have started reading music right away, but I wanted to be sure that he had a good first experience, and so, not knowing what to expect, I used numbers.

His response was immediate and 100% approval. He was fascinated at the idea of numbers on the piano keys, but even more striking was the fact that this child could find the pattern in anything. In fact, he lived for pattern, because apparently that was one thing he could be sure of, in his perhaps uncertain little world.

So we embarked on a study of chords and the patterns within. It didn’t take long, a matter of weeks, before he was composing songs that actually made musical sense. They were not childish nonsense, but fully formed melodies that had musical syntax and logic, plus a bouncing old-time Broadway style!

Soon after we started a study of scales, and David soon surprised me by playing all twelve major scales, with no preparation or prompting from me. We played the C scale, he saw the pattern, and the rest is history.

I did have to adjust my curriculum completely to meet his needs. The problem was that David would become so interested in a certain aspect of music theory that you could not introduce another at all. He simply wanted to play with the idea that interested him, and so I designed each step of learning around his interests, taking the cue from him.

We worked on what delighted him, with fabulous results.

What a pleasure to walk into the music room and have him smile and say, “Let’s work on chords!” Or, “Here, I wrote a song, listen!”

Follow the interests of the autistic child at the piano, and they will lead you to their success.

Visit http://pianoiseasy2.com for a beginning piano method kids really enjoy!

Copyright 2013 John Aschenbrenner All Rights Reserved

Visit http://www.pianoiseasy.com to see the fun PIANO BY NUMBER method for kids.

11 Responses to “Autism, Kids and Piano”

  1. Azir Says:

    Hi!
    Your article surely boosted my hopes for my 2.5 year old boy to learn to play the piano in the future. Just like the kids you mentioned in your article, my toddler also has autism and he is still not-so verbal at this stage. But one thing is for sure, when he listens to Mozart and Bach and it makes him a bit relaxed. Last night we were watching a video of a guy playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in his piano, when the video was over, my toddler was able to hum the intro of that piece. I think he has a good ear retention with music and maybe when he is ready he can have a lesson too. Like you said, it can serve as an outlet for his expression.
    It is good to know that there are some people who have the hearts to teach and help kids with such condition. Keep it up!

  2. Neil Says:

    My son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS. He showed interest in music from a very early age. We bought him an old piano when he was 4 and he loved tinkering on it. Many people commented on his playing at the time which seemed to be mainly experimentation and making musical patterns. We arranged some lessons for him but it ended up putting him off and he didn’t touch the piano for the next 3 years. At 6.30 am this morning, after such a long time, he suddenly starts playing again and it sounded to my wife and mine untrained ears really beautiful. Like a composed peice of music that still needed a little work around the edges. Maybe i’m just a proud parent (but I don’t think so), so I’ll try and record him next time and play it to someone who should know. But clearly a music teacher who knows how to work with these kids is important. I would hate for him to get turned off again.

  3. Rebecca Brown Says:

    I, too, enjoy teaching the students with autism and/or aspbergers. However, the students I have worked with have run the whole gamut in musical ability. Without fail, they have all been very sharp at picking up the music theory, patterns, etc. There is definitely a common strength in that side of their brain. I have had two students, however, who have had great difficulty in transferring what they know in their heads to an action easily executed by their hands. But they still seem to love what they are learning, even if we have to move very slowly in applying it to piano. I currently have two students with autism. Both students are described as “highly functional”. One is sailing through his books, having covered in three months what other students might cover in a full school year. The other, at age 11, has spent 14 months covering the same material that my 5-year-old students cover in about 9 months. But we keep plugging away, because he enjoys learning, and enjoys his time with me. And his mom and I both feel that the challenge is good for his development.

    These two boys are bright spots in my week! They challenge me as a teacher, and stretch my heart. A friend commented recently that piano lessons are music therapy for a “special needs” child. I responded with, “Teaching piano lessons to a ‘special needs’ child is music therapy for the teacher!”

  4. Debbie Fuller Says:

    I only have one student that has autism. He is a fourth grader, mainstreamed in a public school. He comes to me for vocabulary and piano lessons. I agree that teaching him is music therapy for me! What a joy! He has perfect pitch, so excited and joyful about everything. This article has helped me as I prepare to teach him. So far he doesn’t sit for more than a few seconds. I am thinking of removing the bench!? Does anyone else have this challenge?

    • Rebecca Brown Says:

      Part of the joy of teaching private lessons is the freedom to tailor those lessons to the individual needs of each child. If he will do better without the bench, then remove the bench. Or, mix up the lesson….have him work at the piano for a few minutes, then do rhythm exercises together, then go to a whiteboard to review theory concepts, etc. If you feel he will do better without the bench, I would recommend using a digital piano and raising the stand to an appropriate height, though. That way, you can still encourage proper hand positioning.

  5. Musi Says:

    So my five year old was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 2 and we have finally been able to see his gift – he plays piano by ear.Each time we encourage him or try to help him (you know us parents), he pushes us away. So my fear is that we may not foster this talent in the right direction then he ‘loses’ his gift, or push him away. How do you nurture or enhance his skills/gift to where it wont be lost?

    • Rebecca Brown Says:

      That’s the most difficult thing I face as a piano teacher, and as a mother. We run into this challenge with nearly every student….no matter what their specific difficulties and/or gifts are. I face it most with the incredibly gifted, however. I want to encourage them to develop their gift, but have to avoid pushing them too hard or in a direction that they absolutely do not want to go.

      My own daughter, for example, began playing songs on the piano by ear at 18 months old, and was composing her own songs before she was 8 years old. Not being real sure what to do with a student like this, I chose to kind of let her do her own thing and experiment for a while. When she started writing songs that sounded really nice, though, I insisted that she take piano lessons and at least learn how to notate the music she was writing. She stuck with the piano for 4 years, then started band in 6th grade. Nothing I did would convince her to continue piano lessons…..playing percussion had stolen her heart. She has continued playing piano, and singing, and writing music, however. Now, as a freshman who is blowing everyone away with her talent, she is finally starting to see the value of coming back to developing the piano skills and learning more theory. So I’ve jumped on that and signed her up for a theory/improvisation class. Not actual piano lessons, but the improvisation portion of the class is making her apply the theory to the piano.

      I’m telling you that story because, although she is not autistic or challenged in any other way, she is a similar case. Had I pushed her with my own agenda, she probably would not have the love for listening to and making music that she has now. I had to follow her lead….push where she was ready/willing to be pushed, and back off and let her be a unique individual when necessary.

      I don’t think of my autistic students as “autistic”. They are just another student with their own unique interests, strengths, and weaknesses. And that’s how I have to teach them.

      • Elizabeth Says:

        I am so agree with you when you said that an autistic kid is just another student with a unique style. I am looking for a special piano teacher like you for my little boy. He has been receiving classes, but his teacher misses a lot classes lately and I need more commitment from the teacher. Where are you? or can you recommend someone in the areas miami, north miami beach, and/or south broward county, in Florida. Thank you.

      • pianobynumber Says:

        Hi, Elizabeth, I got your post asking for a piano teacher. While I don’t know of an appropriate teacher in your area, I do teach via webcam to any location. Here is the link: https://www.thezoen.com/teachers/john-aschenbrenner-piano
        Thanks, John

  6. Mandy Walker Says:

    reading these articles has been very positive for anyone who knows anybody with autism.

  7. Gabriel Says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m a young teacher and have just gained a 13-year-old autistic girl as a student. She has strangely unbalanced skills and struggles to focus, but when she does reign it in, she has a clear appreciation for the sounds that she’s hearing. I plan to learn a lot with her and appreciate the links to resources that have worked for you.

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