Autism Spectrum Disorder Research: And Its Implications for Music Teachers

By Polischuk, Derek Kealii | American Music Teacher, August-September 2016 | Go to article overview

Autism Spectrum Disorder Research: And Its Implications for Music Teachers


Polischuk, Derek Kealii, American Music Teacher


High-Functioning Autism is an autism spectrum disorder that is distinguished by difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and sometimes repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Generally, those with High-Functioning Autism have normal or near-normal linguistic and cognitive development. Children with learning disabilities, such as High-Functioning Autism, in the modern music studio pose an exciting challenge to music teachers, requiring the instructor to use a variety of teaching strategies to reach these students.

In a study of public school teachers by Val Cumine, Julia Leach and Gill Stevenson, (1) a majority of teachers believed they had not received the proper training to instruct children with High-Functioning Autism. In my informal polls of piano teachers, I would guess the same feelings exist among most piano teachers. I hope this review of literature, mostly gleaned from the field of teacher education, will help music teachers expand their repertoire of research-based strategies for teaching students with High-Functioning Autism.

What The Research Says

The body of research for Autism is significantly larger than that for High-Functioning Autism. Although High-Functioning Autism and Autism differ with regard to early cognitive development and language acquisition, similarities do exist. Because of these similarities, some teaching strategies put forth in Autism research are applicable to working with students with High-Functioning Autism.

The Behaviorist Theory, or "Behaviorism," is an approach to psychology primarily concerned with the observable and measurable aspects of human behavior while emphasizing changes in behavior that result from stimulus-response associations made by the learner. (2) Regarding High-Functioning Autism, "Maladaptive behavior is viewed as essentially the result of (1) a failure to learn necessary adaptive behaviors or competencies, such as how to establish satisfying personal relationships, and/or (2) the learning of ineffective or maladaptive responses." (3) "A failure to learn necessary adaptive behaviors or competencies, such as how to establish satisfying personal relationships" describes students with High-Functioning Autism very well. People with High-Functioning Autism sometimes do not detect social clues, such as a nonverbal facial expression meant to convey frustration. Missing nonverbal social cues can result in a missed lesson associated with a given experience.

While individuals on the Autism Spectrum sometimes have difficulty determining another person's emotions and desires, they are often times very aware of their own. This can be very useful in a music lesson context if an instructor takes the rime to determine what is pleasing to a student. For example, if a student with High-Functioning Autism finds particular pleasure in learning to play the music from Star Wars, a teacher should take note of this, using this desired activity as a reinforcement for a lesson activity that the teacher wishes to accomplish, such as the practicing of scales.

Designing Teaching Strategies Based On Research

The characteristics of High-Functioning Autism are often times masked by above-average IQ scores. Because of this, teachers may presume a student is capable of more than is being produced. When a music teacher does not understand the specific needs of a High-Functioning Autism student, that teacher may not as readily search for strategies to reach this student. Additionally, students with High-Functioning Autism frequently find social situations distracting and overwhelming. Group music instruction, chamber music and work in large ensembles may be so challenging for a student with High-Functioning Autism that learning goals may be lost completely. The advantage of applied one-on-one music instruction is a strength that should be harnessed by music teachers. While public education involves consistent socialization with group assignments, passing periods, lunch breaks and recess, the private controlled nature of a music lesson can be a comfortable and native environment for a student with High-Functioning Autism. …

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