Blogger Widgets Ender-Chan's Thoughts: How To Teach an Autistic Band Student

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How To Teach an Autistic Band Student

Disclaimer: This is from a student's perspective and entirely based on my experiences. 

This article was written assuming the autistic student in question chose band voluntarily as a pursuit and is committed to some degree to the subject. 

Beginning Students
  1. Let the student choose their instrument. I have read an article in which an autistic student that chose flute was switched to trumpet because the director thought the flute was "too hard." This resulted in the student's dissatisfaction and frustration. A student will be more likely to succeed playing the instrument of their choice because, with their instrument, they choose the trials that come with such an instrument. 
    • Never, under any circumstances, give a student a broken or defunct instrument. It is hard enough to learn an instrument without having it not work properly. Frustration is more intense in an autistic student. If they cannot figure out the problem with the instrument, they will melt down and be discouraged with band. 
  2. Do not automatically lower your expectations. Not only is this fatal to musical growth, but it lowers the student's self-esteem. Setting low standards creates a toxic train of thought that leads to the student settling for less than their absolute best. Adjusting standards is one thing, but completely lowering them is another. Regardless of the student's disability/ies, current skill level, or other factors, having condescendingly low expectations is not acceptable.
  3. Do not set standards too high. Setting quixotic standards leads to the same toxic train of thought mentioned above. This applies to all students as well. A continuous cycle of disappointment in band will be broken one of two ways: by quitting band with a residual hatred of performance left over 
  4. Assess the student as an individual. Any good teacher knows that no two students respond to the same stimulus in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons. Autistic students are no different. Two such students might, in fact, be foils to each other in the way they receive sensory input from the band. For example, one student may plug their ears during loud sections in the music while another will relish the swells in the music. 
  5. Accommodate the student as needed--and only as needed. Making a few exceptions to the concert attire rules to accommodate tactile sensitivities, permitting the wearing of headphones, and allowing the student to quietly fidget onstage can be the difference between a successful performance and a meltdown. If you absolutely cannot accommodate a need, explain why. Take care that low expectations do not manifest as over-accommodating, so, if you are ever unsure, just ask. 
  6. Let the student move at their own pace. Most students have some variability in their learning paces. An autistic student's variabilities will be intensified. It might take them five days to learn how to change between two notes in the initial stages, but music might be smooth sailing from there. 
  7. Treat the student as you would any member of the ensemble. Expect them to practice at home, balance and blend with the others, be in tune, and hold them to the standards others are held to where there is no need for adjustment. 
Intermediate and Advanced Students
  1. Offer the opportunity of extracurricular ensembles and music festivals as you would to any other student, but do not force or coerce. As with any group of students, there are a passionate select few always scanning the world for opportunities to pick up their instrument. Withholding such opportunities from a passionate student will be detrimental to their music growth as well as their self-esteem. If a student is active in band to the extent they choose to be, they will love it and may increase in activity later. 
  2. Emphasize personal improvement over chair position. Asking "Why are you still in X chair?" rather than "Where were you last, where are you now, and where do you want to be?" is not conducive to healthy musical growth in any musician. It might produce a short term response, but emphasis on chair position over personal improvement promotes egotism and a hostile ensemble environment.  
  3. Accept the reason the student is in band. Some students are in band because they are serious and passionate about music; such students may pursue it as a career. Others simply like the people in band enough to pursue the subject as a hobby. Use this reason to your advantage in order to promote growth and improvement. 
  4. Adjust as needed. As a student goes through band and, ultimately, life, their needs change. Band fulfills many needs at once: for society, cognitive development, and for motivation. The satisfaction the student derives from band can change over time. 
  5. Assist in problem-solving as requested/needed. Generally, autistic students to not respond well to eye-rolling and sarcasm. If they are still out of tune, offer tips that will help with them staying in tune rather than scoffing "You're still out of tune?". Problems with communication can prevent the student from saying "I need assistance with X." Offer your assistance, but do not force it. Most people resent being "helped" without their permission and would rather make their own successes rather than get dragged into them.
Other Tips
  1. Let meltdowns run their course. Do not try to resolve them or teach during a meltdown. In these emotional explosions, one's IQ can decrease by 30 points. They are not the same as tantrums because they are not in any way controlled or a means to achieve one's whims and desires. Only use restraint if their or another student's immediate safety is at risk. Restraint and cornering will only make it worse.
    • Never call the police during a meltdown. Many autistic people die or are traumatized at the hands of law enforcement.
  2. Remember that behavior is communication. Rarely do autistic people display belligerence simply for the sake of doing so. They might be tired, overwhelmed, hungry, or just plain having a bad day when acting out.
  3. Never, ever enforce "quiet hands" policies despite what the "specialists" and "experts" say. Autistic people stim as a means of staving off sensory and/or emotional overload, self-expression, and meeting their needs. Redirection to an alternative should take place if the stim is harmful or disruptive--and only if it is harmful or disruptive.
  4. Emphasize individual assets. Though self-esteem varies widely by the individual and their temperament, autistic people tend to have lower self-esteem than their neurotypical counterparts. Offer affirmation regularly and specifically. We get tired of hearing a trite, infantile "Good job" and want to specifically hear what we did well. Whether lower self-esteem is the sensing of being different or a temperamental trend I am not sure, but keep this in mind when giving feedback. 
  5. Embrace the student's learning method. Every learning style has a way to yield desired results. Your teaching methods may conflict with the student's learning methods, so this creates the need for one person to adapt. Whether the student or the teacher is required to adapt depends on the particular pairing, but one must yield to unsure success. 
These tips are meant to accommodate a variety of abilities, temperaments, backgrounds, experience levels, and other variations.


  1. Congratulations on your 9000th post!

    1. I did not write 9000 posts. I have over 9,000 total pageviews, so I just had to revive the "It's over 9000" meme.

    2. That was a typo, sorry. I meant page view.

    3. Well, it's not as bad as overwriting a published post, is it? My choleric impulsivity got the better of me.

  2. This is a very informative post. I'm sure if you become a band director, you will be very accommodating and accepting of students with disabilities due to your personal experience. This will give you an advantage in the classroom.

    1. I have heard of band directors giving autistic students broken instruments to play; in some cases they go to lengths to damage the instrument itself or otherwise making it unplayable (e.g. putting in a clarinet reed crookedly). It's infuriating. I hope no one else has to experience what others have.

    2. That's awful! Why would someone do that?

    3. A person who does that is usually a lazy director that does not want to put in the work to teach such a student.


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