As an elementary music educator, you have taught students on the autism spectrum, and may be wondering how best to teach these students in your classroom. In this post, I'll write about several different ways to engage autistic students.
Note: There is disagreement in the autism community about person-first vs. identity-first language. Many people on the spectrum, as well as parents of children on the spectrum, prefer identity-first language, so that it what I will use in this blog post. For information about this distinction, click here, and scroll to “Identity-first language.”
What is Autism?
First, what is autism? According to the CDC, Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), “is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people.”
We often hear that autistic students are “on the spectrum.” What exactly does that mean? As you likely know from your own teaching experience, autism can look very different from child to child. Dr. Stephen Shore once said, “If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.”
Since there is a wide variety of abilities and interests among autistic students, how can we best teach them? Although there is a lot of variety, there are also some commonalities. By adjusting our teaching, we can not only better reach autistic students, but also students with learning disabilities, such as SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder), ADHD, and more.
Here are five ways I've adapted my teaching to better teach autistic students.
One of the common characteristics of autistic students is that they like routine, because change and transitions can be difficult. Luckily, in the music room, we often have routines in our lessons! As I wrote in this blog post, I like to start all of my lower elementary lessons with a gathering song, such as “Here we are together” (to the tune of “The more we get together.”) With my upper elementary students, I've done a “mindful minute” as a routine (find out more about mindfulness in the music classroom here.) By beginning your lessons in the same way each time, this creates a predictable routine that all students will appreciate.
Awareness of Noise
A commonality among autistic students is that many do not like loud noises. In the music classroom, this can be tricky…as our rooms are often quite loud! How can we adapt?
Three things that have helped in my classroom: first, I've had headphones available for any students for whom noise is an issue. Then, if we are listening to a loud piece of music, or are drumming, those students can get headphones to help absorb the noise. During the pandemic, you'd want to be especially mindful of disinfecting after each use.
Second, I've warned students ahead of time that it was going to get loud. My daughter Macy has Sensory Processing Disorder (which is often but not always linked to Autism), so I've learned to give her a warning when I knew there would be a loud sound (such as the blender), and this has helped her. In the music classroom, you could simply tell the whole class, or pull those students aside and quietly tell them.
Third, I've adjusted the volume and where students are sitting. For example, if we are listening to a loud piece of music, I've simply lowered the volume by a bit so the sound isn't quite as loud. Then, I've invited students to move a little further away from the speakers, so the volume isn't quite as disturbing to them.
Flexibility (with Seating and expectations!)
As I just stated, Sensory Processing Disorder is often intertwined with Autism. Some students will simply have Sensory Processing Disorder, and not be on the spectrum, but often autistic students will have sensory needs.
What does this mean? Well, like the quote above…it can look many different ways! My own daughter is noise avoidant, but will seek movement to help regulate herself. This has taught me to be a lot more understanding of my students' needs. I used to have an autistic student who often spun around in his seat, or laid on the floor, and I would often remind him to sit still…until I realized this is what he NEEDED to do! Then, I just let him be, as long as his movement wasn't distracting to others.
By being patient and understanding to students who need to move, they can seek what they need and learn better. Some students will avoid noise and movement, and some will seek noise and movement…it just depends on the child. By being understanding of each child's needs, those students can be more successful.
I've also found that flexible seating has been helpful, in giving students choices in what they sit on and how they sit. See this blog post for more information about flexible seating.
Communication and direction following can be difficult for autistic students. Let's say that students need to get a worksheet, a pencil, a spot in the room, and write directions on their paper. This can be a lot for students who struggle to follow directions. How can we adapt our teaching?
First, we can give the directions, and then either model ourselves, or ask a student to model. So after giving the directions, you could call on a student (who you know does not struggle with directions) to model each step. All of the other students would then watch that student get a worksheet, get a pencil, find a spot to sit, and write their name. Having that visual can be especially helpful for students who are challenged in this area.
Second, we could check in with those students who we know struggle with directions, and ask them if they are good with the directions. You could reiterate the steps to them, keeping in mind that their struggle is not because they don't want to follow the directions, but simply, because it's harder for them.
Lastly, having written directions with visuals can be especially helpful for autistic students. Processing verbal directions can be overwhelming, so by having another way to process directions, more students will be successful.
Several years ago, I began using an agenda in my classroom, so that students know what's coming in the lesson (read more about agendas here.) For students who appreciate routine, this can be very beneficial, as they know how many activities are in the lesson, what they will be learning, etc. I find that it also helps keep me on track!
I've just updated all of my first grade lessons, so that they are in Google Drive (and more digital friendly), they are more student-centered, and each lesson includes an agenda slide. If you have already purchased the lessons, you can download the updates for free, and if you are haven't purchased yet, you can download one of the lessons for free here:
Not sure which students in your school are autistic, or have similar needs? Talk to your intervention specialist to get a copy of IEP's, or Individualized Education Plans. The IEP's at a glance can be very helpful, as they are much shorter and more succinct.
Looking for more resources for teaching autistic students? Check out these:
- “Teaching Music to Students with Autism” by Alice M. Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan
I hope this is helpful to you. Feel free to comment below with any thoughts or successes you've had! Happy teaching!