Teaching Music To Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Maureen Butler
Maureen Butler
Lake Drive School, NJ

Although we’ve heard a lot about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the last decade or so, and probably have taught many of these children through the years, we may still have some questions. Whether you’re a new teacher or a seasoned pro, here are some answers to commonly asked questions about autism.

What Do The New Statistics Say About The Prevalence Of Autism?

According to the Center for Disease Control (March 2014) the national incidence of students with ASD has risen to 1 in 68 children. However, to understand this information correctly, it is important to know that this figure is only an estimate, based on the records of eight-year old children living in communities in eleven different states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin), according to CDC. Furthermore, the number of diagnosed children varied widely from one area to another. Therefore, we should not take this information to mean that one in every sixty-eight of the entire number of children in the United States is on the spectrum.

Nonetheless, the new numbers do represent an increase over the last few decades. Some theorize that this may be due to earlier and more accurate identification and diagnosis as well as a broader definition of ASD. New Jersey reportedly has a higher than average level – 1 in 45, compared with Arizona at 1 in 175. New Jersey also has excellent services that arguably may motivate families who have children with ASD to move to the state.

Specific causes of autism have not been identified, although risk factors have been, including genetic and environmental factors. Moreover, the original authors have retracted the study that erroneously linked vaccinations to autism.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

ASD is a developmental disability that usually appears within the first three years of life. It is called a spectrum disorder because there is a wide range of behaviors and traits that vary among those with autism. This continuum includes the more severe Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett’s Syndrome, to higher functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome (AS). Additionally, there is a wide range of combinations within the extremes of the spectrum. Some of our students have the classification “PDD-NOS”, pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified. These children may have some but not all characteristics of autism.

What Kind Of Deficits Should We Expect To See?

In general, children with autism have deficits in three primary areas: communication, social skills, and sensory processing.

Communication – Students might exhibit:

  • Difficulty understanding questions and directions
  • Abnormal voice quality
  • Difficulty having a conversation
  • Absence of imaginative play
  • Echolalia –repeating back what is heard, instead of appropriately responding
  • Repetition of unrelated phrases

Social Skills – Students may have difficulty:

  • Decoding facial expression and gestures
  • Responding to others socially or emotionally
  • Developing relationships with others
  • Understanding that others have different thoughts, desires and feelings.

Sensory Processing Issues – Students may:

  • Be under- or over-reactive to sensory stimuli
  • Process and respond to input in different ways
  • Use self-stimulating behaviors (rubbing, hand-flapping, rocking, etc.) to either increase stimulation if the child is hyposensitive or block out over-stimulating sensory input if the child is hypersensitive

It is important to note that sensory issues can be overwhelming to children with ASD. Some children are hypersensitive to touch; they may be distracted by something as small as a tag on the back of their shirt. In the music classroom, a student with auditory sensitivity may be overwhelmed by certain sounds, volume, or by the sheer amount of auditory input. Conversely, those who are hyposensitive to sound may prefer louder music. Keep in mind that these are not merely preferences; the brain’s ability to process sensory input helps us make sense of the world around us, and controls how we learn and function in the world. Thus, the child with a processing disorder faces major and unpredictable distractions throughout his day.

In addition, students with ASD may have odd eating and sleeping habits, abnormal mood swings, and uneven development of cognitive skills. You may notice limited and repeated body movements, unusual body postures, minimal direct eye contact, and fascination with moving objects. Children may perseverate about specific topics, preferring to talk repeatedly about the same thing, such as trains, trucks, or animals, for example, and may insist that things always be done the same way.

What Is Asperger Syndrome?

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is thought to be on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. Children with AS are typically highly intelligent with good language skills, generally function well academically, and may be very successful in the music classroom. However, some students with AS may lack higher level thinking and comprehension skills and have difficulty with abstract thought, so be sure that they truly understand what is being taught, and are not just repeating back what you have said. In addition, they tend to have limited focus, insist that things be done a certain way, and may become obsessive about routines. Keep in mind that any change to your routine or schedule (an assembly, a fire drill, e.g.) may be a source of difficulty and should be discussed and prepared for in advance. Their difficulty with social skills and lack of understanding of human relationships may prevent them from developing friendships. However, fostering a sense of empathy and modeling understanding and acceptance in your classroom will help other students react positively to their peers with AS.

How Can Music Help?

Music can be a meaningful area of growth for students on the spectrum. Songs and other activities can help develop speech and vocal imitation skills, increase attention span, and provide a valuable means of self-expression. Working within groups and ensembles to perform songs, dances, and instrumental music can help children develop more social behavior, thereby improving interpersonal relationships.

What Are Some General Strategies?

To foster better communication and social skills, encourage and reinforce positive social interaction as it occurs. Also, it may be wise to choose to ignore some behaviors as long as they don’t interfere with the lesson. If you’re planning to have children work in small groups or with a partner, carefully select which children will work together. Choose a sensitive “buddy” to assist the student with autism.

Be mindful of any sensory impairments in your students and take steps to reduce sensory input where necessary; for example, lessen the amount of visual clutter in your room, or lower the volume of music you play. Allow time away from class if sensory input is too intense – a walk to the water fountain, or a trip to the library or classroom with a paraprofessional if appropriate, can help de-escalate the situation.

When behavioral problems threaten to disturb the class, remember that these may be a result of the difficulty with communication, social skills and sensory issues and not acts of defiance. After problems occur, analyze the behaviors and try to pinpoint what may have triggered them, and adapt your methods or your classroom accordingly. A behavior management system based on positive reinforcement can be helpful. Moreover, teaching peers how to interact with the student will be helpful for all, and at the same time foster a sense of empathy and kindness in other students.

What Are Some Tips For Lesson Planning?

In general, choose materials that are age-appropriate, developmentally accessible, and motivating. When creating lessons, you may wish to set non-musical as well as musical goals, such as improved social interaction and communication, and when teaching, provide direct instruction of social skills as needed. Many children with autism benefit from a structured learning environment; follow a routine to ease transitions, and use repetition and reinforcement to teach skills. Visual aids can be helpful to explain rules and procedures, to list daily schedules, to illustrate songs, to offer student choices of what song to play or which instrument to choose. If the child is non-verbal and uses an alternative communication system, utilize the same system in your class, and see that music vocabulary is added.

When you begin to understand your individual students’ strengths, deficits and sensory impairments, you’ll be able to modify your plans so that everyone can be successful at something. You may have a student who can’t tolerate the sounds of certain rhythm instruments; find an instrument he can play, or give him the choice of singing or dancing instead. If a child cannot sing, allow her to choose a rhythm instrument to play. Don’t be discouraged if an activity seems to fail at first; when you do find something that the child connects with, you’ll know it! Don’t forget to network with your colleagues; the special education teacher, related therapists and one-on-one paraprofessional may have valuable insight to share to help the students they work with every day. Find out what strategies work in other settings and adapt them to your own needs.

Working with students with ASD can be challenging; learning about their special needs will help us to treat them with understanding and respect. When we include them successfully in our music classes, we give them a chance to grow musically, and hopefully, to gain valuable life skills that will help prepare them for a rewarding life.



Adamek, Mary S., and Darrow, Alice-Ann (2010). Music in Special Education, Second Edition. The American Music Therapy Corporation

Novels that offer insight into the world of autism:

Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir by Daniel Tammet

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Lembach

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