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For some children music is the means of communication and developing a relationship. For others, less severely affected, music can be the medium for enhancing verbal communication. One child I worked with, while having no functional communication, had a storehouse of holiday and children's songs in her head, as I found out one day when I didn't play the last note of a song. Not only did she say the correct word, she sang it at the right pitch. With limited-verbal children of this nature, it is often possible to get them to supply the missing words to a song they know by suddenly stopping the song and accompaniment at points of "maximal tension."² These places of maximal tension (Miller & Eller-Miller, 1989, p. 65, 93) occur during the last few notes of a cadence. An example would be to sing "twinkle, twinkle, little -----" and wait for the child to fill in the missing word "star."
Another person I worked with used facilitated communication (FC). FC depends on another person providing arm or wrist support to someone typing on a keyboard or touching pictures on a communication board. This does raise difficulties in separating the intentions of the person being helped from those of the helper. Be that as it may, when I supported this person's arm to play a piano keyboard, he was able to sing, indeed sing well, old songs he must have heard as a child. This seemed to be the only way that he could sing these songs.
With one particular child with Asperger syndrome, all of my communications are sung. If I mistakenly lapse into a typical conversational tone, he loses focus, engages in self-stimulatory activities, and drifts away. The music helps to organize verbal communication skills that already exist. And by holding the child's interest, I can turn the sessions into fairly typical music lessons.
During the first session with this child, I created a system³ where the child asked me for pieces of paper that had the letter names of the notes. Once this series of events was internalized, I expanded the routine by having him place the notes on the appropriate place on the music staff. This system was expanded further by having him draw a circle on the staff where the note belonged and write in the letter of the note. Then he would give the note to his mother. Fine motor problems were present, and drawing a circle first helped confine where the note should go. Asking him on which space or line the note should go (as opposed to a generic "Where does the note go?") also helped. The system was expanded yet again by having the child guess which note I had in my hand. After guessing correctly he then had to write the note on the staff before receiving the piece of paper. We then took turns as he held the notes, with either his mother or me having to guess which note he had in his hand. When it came time for me to write the note on the staff, I would ask him in a singing voice on which line or space it went.
Other parts of the session were spent in imitative drumming, and later, work on the recorder. I made certain that we took turns in leading the imitation. This was a good activity to do when he seemed to be fading away and losing focus. His mother quickly caught on to our activities; she participated very well in the session, and we all had a pleasurable experience. The child has a lot of musical ability and using the Miller method (Miller & Eller-Miller, 1989; Miller, 2000), he was taught to play the recorder and later the piano, which he now plays well.
With the child that already plays an instrument, I will introduce myself into his world by sharing the instrument via turn taking. When I play the instrument the child accompanies me on percussion. Then we switch roles. The turns start out short and gradually lengthen to where I work on other issues such as verbal skills, writing, and motor control as needed. To establish equality between us, I must also take my turns doing anything I require of him or her. I too, for example, need to ask permission to use the keyboard if the child is already using it.
Music can also be used to organize behavior when working with a group of children, by having them walk or otherwise move to the rhythm of the music. Often I will have them march in a circle as I play music on a keyboard. With the help of aides, I will have the students stop when I stop playing and continue when I resume. When the children understand when to stop and start, I will turn this into a game similar to "musical chairs" where the person who stops last is "out" and has to sit down. Realizing that it is unreasonable to expect these children to sit still with their hands folded while the game plays itself out, I give them a shaker — but not before they ask for it and identify the piece of fruit the shaker represents, if appropriate.
The worst possible thing, which I have too often seen, is children sitting in a circle around a large instrument with nothing to do while they wait to take a turn on the instrument. Typically, the children fall into a disorganized mass of self-stimulatory and challenging behaviors. This situation, caused by failing to engage all the children in a classroom, is entirely preventable.
For the child at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, the school band may provide an important avenue for development. The trombone requires a good kinesthetic sense of where one's arm is in order to place the trombone slide in the right place for a note to be in tune. Other instruments, except for the stringed ones, require less ear-to-arm coordination, as the pitches are obtained with the assistance of keys or valves. The French horn, however, demands much coordination of the embouchure.[sup4] Percussion may be another avenue. If complex rhythms present a challenge, the bass drum may be a good choice as the musical patterns are relatively simple. Additionally, the bass drum with its low and relatively simple sound waves is often easier for a person with sound sensitivities to handle. Finally, being at the rear of a potentially cacophonous musical ensemble may be of help, as it is less noisy there.
Location in the ensemble may have to take sensory sensitivities into account. If a student with autism insists on playing a certain instrument and it is clear that there will be problems with sound sensitivities, allowing the child to sit in a different location may be easier than rearranging the ensemble in a nonstandard manner. I skipped many jazz band rehearsals in high school because the director was unwilling to let me sit elsewhere than right in front of the blaring trumpets. In addition to the purely musical benefits, playing in an ensemble is good for working on cooperation with others, coordination, and a sense of accomplishment.
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