Kodi Lee Wins, Parents Asking About Piano Lessons for Autistic Students

He’s got perfect pitch. He is 22, and sings with a rasp and vibrato through that last high note. Kodi’s piano accompaniment shows off technical precision that stole my heart. 

Kodi Lee just won the 2019 America's Got Talent competition

Kodi Lee won the 2019 America’s Got Talent competition

He’s also blind and autistic, and Kodi Lee just won the 2019 America’s Got Talent competition, and I WAS THERE IN HOLLYWOOD TO SEE IT! #heckyeah

Henny Kupferstein with Kodi Lee’s piano teacher YiYi Ku, at America’s Got Talent finals

Autistic people have talent, and nearly all autistic people have perfect pitch (read my research study). Autistic musical savants like myself want to be recognized for musical talent, the practice time we devote to showcasing perfection, and the music theory training that helps us fit in to a group of quality musicians, because we are usually the strongest one in the room

Kodi’s win made parents and teachers think about autistic talent, and now everyone wants piano lessons for their autistic child. 

Autistic's Got Talent (fake pose)

All my piano students are autistic. Every autistic piano student should have equal access to the arts, whether they are nonverbal, blind, or poor motor skills. We can all do it, because we have the gift. But do all piano teachers have the gift to teach? 

Current research is critical to work with a demographic that is misunderstood by mainstream education. Those who put together homegrown curriculum and color-basedprograms are truly demonstrating incompetent teaching skills. Teaching down to the diagnosis is a form of discrimination, and parents need to learn how to recognize a poor teacher-student relationship.

How to Know if Your Autistic Child’s Piano Teacher Is Trained for the Job

  1. The teacher will begin the lessons even if the student does not have an appropriate instrument in their home
  2. The teacher plays all assignments for the student, and then teaches by rote
  3. The teacher assigns scales and flashcard work for home practice
  4. The teacher does not hold a 4-year music degree from a nationally accredited institution.
  5. The teacher focuses on correcting posture and finger shape more times than the student is playing during the lesson.
  6. The teacher’s rates are below market rate for professional services in your region
  7. The teacher refuses to teach online (skype/facetime) to accommodate the student
  8. The teacher uses “student with autism” or “definitely has a spectrum disorder” language without regard for the prevailing preference of autistic people to be called primarily “autistic”
  9. The teacher talks slow, loud, and with vocabulary that feels infantilizing.
  10. The teacher is not autistic, and therefore, cannot serve as a positive role model. 

Thankfully, I’ve done the work for you! 

Henny Kupferstein posing with a fake Hollywood star

Piano teachers looking for an evidence-based piano pedagogy, read about my professional training program for LDME™ Training – Developmental Music Education™ Training  to  become a licensed developmental music educator®

Research Study about autism and perfect pitch: Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch Kupferstein, H., & Walsh, B. J. (2016). Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch. World Futures, 72(7-8), 390-405. [PDF]

Parents who want to learn more about piano lessons for autistic and nonverbal students using a method that guarantees these goals through neuroplastic changes, BOOK A CONSULT and let’s set a time to talk.

Popular Articles:

  1. Why Piano Lessons for My Autistic Child? Top 10 Questions Answered by Autistic Piano Teacher
  2. Before You Pay for Piano Lessons: Little Johnny’s Bill of Rights
  3. Concern: Skype Piano Lessons Will Never Work for My Autistic Child Because…

Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) and AACs for nonspeaking autistics

RPM is a method for teaching academics to non verbal and autistic students, which may lead to independent typing.  Many of my piano students use RPM during the lesson and to support their schooling. HALO is a non-profit organization providing RPM, which is academic instruction leading towards communication for persons with autism. Soma Mukhopadhyay developed Rapid Prompting Method to teach her own son Tito who is a published writer despite his autism. HALO’s clinic in Austin, Texas is where she conducts 1:1 Soma® RPM education and training. 

Resources

Watch the movie from my https://hennyk.com/resources/ page: 

Then, see the videos on Soma’s page http://www.halo-soma.org 

Online Support

Is it OCD or Autistic Perseveration? Setting the Record Straight

People are very quick to assign labels to behaviors. When an autistic person insists on correcting your grammar, it may feel like they are shaming you. When an autistic person insists that you have taken the wrong road to get to the ice cream store, you may feel like they are calling you stupid. Knowing the source of these expressions helps the bystander coexist with the autistic person. For autistics, knowing that the world is becoming less hostile and safer for them to express their thoughts, is necessary for healthy identity.

Negative perceptions of the self are formed when people tell you to stop. Stop talking. Stop lecturing. Stop flapping. Stop covering your ears. Stop reciting pi. Stop, stop, stop. These are weapons used by neurotypicals to enforce societal norms by oppressing the autistic way of being. When the autistic persists, they call it a mental illness. They must label it because any other explanation is inconceivable.

We are told that we are rude. We are annoying. We persistently set the record straight. We should not correct others. We should not tell them that the plural of syllabus is syllabi. We should simply sit with all that information and hold it in. Like a sneeze that is threatened to exist. If you hold your nostrils, maybe it won’t escape. If you stuff your mouth with a sock and also hold your nostrils, there is a chance that you can bring on just the exact amount of internalized oppression to make this sneeze implode inside.

When you do sneeze anything, you are perceived as a social misfits. Bloggers call us fussy brats. Authors refer to us as having ADD/ADHD because we live in the tangent of our own creations, to the exclusion of the input of those around us. Being referred to as annoying, uncaring of the input of others, or persistently insisting on our ways of being, takes a toll on the mental health of the autistic person.

 

How OCD is different from Autism

OCD is an obsessive compulsion to repeat a task, or to be involved with a matter.  It becomes a disorder when the person is unable to withhold from completing the task. The lead-up to the task (checking the stove, locking the door) is rife with a pre-sneeze panic. It must come out. You must sneeze. Involuntary functions are aroused rather than paralyzed. It simply bursts forth like the sneeze that popped after you smelled a bunch of lillies. The person becomes more and more anxious as they repeat the task.  Trying to ignore or stop your obsessions increases your distress and anxiety, and despite efforts to ignore the urges, they keep coming back. This leads to more ritualistic behavior, and the vicious cycle of OCD.

Autistic people operate with a radically different neurological setup. The structural anatomy of autistic brains are nearly indistinguishable from typical brains. However, the neurons fire up and move through pathways that result in a dramatically different worldview. A person with synesthesia is not mentally ill if they hear a number as a color. They are not having hallucinations, but rather, experiencing a multisensory perception to a single stimulus. These perceptions are very exciting for autistic people, and quite pleasing. The autistic person is happier the more they engage in their perseverations. The person who has OCD becomes more anxious as they try to resolve their compulsions.

Engaging in the party in my head is my choice. I maintain the right to speak of the unicorns and the cats dressed in tuxedos. I maintain the right to recite pi until my pet gecko’s stares at me judgingly. You are looking at my happy place as the primary source of annoyance to you. It is not an obsessive compulsion to annoy you. I am simply enjoying the happiness that exists within my personal and private consciousness reality. When I am kind enough to share and hope to bring you into my party, you fail to grasp it. You don’t see the beautiful patterns, the philosophical ponderings, the way the undiscovered colors dazzle my mind. You are struggling, and that is okay. But please don’t put the burden onto me for carrying your challenges.

Meet Nico: The Autistic Teen Who Talks with Piano Fingers

This video was directed by Nicolas Joncour, a pianist and university student in France. Nico spells to communicate. He shared his message about nonspeaking autistics and what he wants the world to understand. Click for captions, or full transcript below:

I was born in October 1999 in France, a country that was not ready for me. I resembled my maternal grandpa, and my personality was like my father. I don’t remember much from when I was a baby, but I remember books. I read books in my bedroom. By reading, I learned a lot.  I had musical notes in my head since I was born. I think I have antennas on my head for music!

“GUITAR” was my first word, but I had to wait until my third birthday until I got my first guitar. When my family sings Happy Birthday, it feels like a jackhammer to my head. But the electric candle from the cake had a pleasant happy birthday song, which was more exciting.

In school, when I was 3, the teacher understood that something was different about me about me, even though the family doctor did not notice anything.  I was 9 years old when I realized that I was not like everyone else everyone else around me. I felt different and knew I was autistic. From that age on, people called me out for being autistic.

The Shoah Holocaust Memorial in Paris was of great interest to me. Most people were surprised that I was the one asking to attend. “How could this 10-year-old understand the story?”–they wondered.  

I was 12 when we adopted a dog from the shelter in Fougères and brought her home to Rennes. I chose the name Fourenne for her to combine the names of both towns. She knows that I love her but I can’t play with her–it’s hard.

Today at the university, it is different than my schooldays. This is because I am recognized as a student, just like all my peers. I describe my personality as reliable, you can count on me, honest, and a high defender of justice. But when strangers first see me, they usually think I am stupid, deaf, and can’t understand what they are saying.

I can’t control the sounds that I make. I do try to control it and to make less noise. It is very difficult for me to learn to play the piano, but when I play an instrument, I decide what gesture I want to make. I am in control. I calculate in my brain to successfully move from one key to another. When I do math, I can feel my body. Playing piano gives me the ability to be the master of my spirit.

Henny: Nico,  if science fiction would make it possible for autistic people to use math in their heads to control speech, do you think we should ask people to do math to feel their mouth?

It would be great to realize that, to make it possible. I would like to speak. I love Math. I wish language would be as easy as mathematics.

And do you think that we should push autistic people to use speech?

I want to talk, to speak, but not by way of force or pressure. It would be like forcing my mom to speak with a lot of people and being social in a large crowd.  Mom: “It’s horrible, it’s a torture”.

A really bad key or a wrong note played is like a knife on the brain! It is very painful. But when people see me playing a wrong key, they think I cannot read the notes.

They must understand that I have no capacity to control my gestures and movement. They should have a different opinion, but the problem is, that I can’t force them! Teachers of young autistic children must understand that we are clever, we can learn. Parents should understand that we are real people on the inside.

In ten years from now, my dream is to be the pope! I want to be the pope for people who are oppressed–people who have no education. In ten months from now, I just want to pass my exams.

I want the world to look like you, Henny.

Thank you, Nico!

Concern: Skype Piano Lessons Will Never Work for My Autistic Child Because…

I only teach piano to nonspeaking and autistic students. All the lessons are online through Skype or FaceTime, even for families who live locally nearby. This helps me reach students all over the world and in underserviced areas. The format is a 1:1 personalized lesson, not a class taught to more than one student. Oftentime, parents will worry about the online format, given their child’s history of requiring hands-on support or in-person prompting. Other parents often remark that they are unsure if the iPad would be a distraction during the lesson. Lastly, many parents wonder how the lesson proceeds if the student runs off or steps away from the instrument. Please read: Why Piano Lessons for My Autistic Child? Top 10 Questions Answered by Autistic Piano Teacher. Here are some frequently asked questions to dispel some fears about the online structure.  

Sensory

  • Your child will also do better if I am in their learning space without being in their physical face.
  • Driving in rush hour traffic and reorienting to the teacher’s house and the smell of her dinner cooking may be too much for one day.
  • Having a lesson in the comfort of your home is optimal where the sensory accommodations are already established.
  • I am autistic too and I arrange my environment to accommodate my sensory needs. Once organized, I am able to be fully focused on the teaching. I can’t have people in my space while I teach.

Physical

  • Mother providing hand-over-hand support to nonverbal autistic piano student with dyspraxia

    Dogs and pets are welcome, if that’s what the student likes. I even teach turtles, cockatoos and Darth Vader.

  • It is important that the room be arranged with everything comforting. All efforts should be made to turn the piano lesson room into a safe space.
  • Some students require upper core support, so experimenting with lumbar-support chair or office chair may be helpful.
  • Arms should be like the capital letter L extending to the piano. However, many students spend the first year with elbow and shoulder support, rendering their hands in the T-Rex position. The awkward posture helps build proprioception in the fingers, which are the farthest point to receive motor signals. As the fine motor skills become reliable, the hands lower into the L posture and support is faded.
  • Some students sit with pretzel legs, one knee up to the chin, or on swiveling chairs. All postural adjustments are encouraged and discussed to enhance accuracy of the finger movement.
  • If the child utilizes larger sensory tools, keep (for example) their trampoline and bouncing balls nearby. The student may utilize anything they need to redirect their body to the piano during the lesson.
  • If the student runs off or rolls on the floor, I don’t consider that a “behavior problem”. Parents should never drag the child back to the piano, bribe them, or threaten with a punishment. Rather, I encourage the student to return to the piano using a variety of tools that I have taught them.

Visual

  • From my observation, almost every student so far has displayed a photographic memory. They will take a quick peripheral glance of the material and almost never refer back to the page for visual prompts. Instead, they are ‘reading’ from their heads.
  • The student is not required to “look” at me. This means that the device is set off to the side where I can see their profile while seated at the piano. I do not allow parents to prompt “look at the book!” or “look at Miss Henny!”
  • If I require the student to use their eyes in any way, I will instruct them on the best strategies to accommodate their visual depletion rates and perceptual differences.  
  • Students with visual impairment, cortical, TBI, or congenital, are encouraged to consider learning to play from written music. Accommodations are made to enlarge the music, use clamp-on magnifiers, colored overlay filters, and a referral to an Irlen diagnostician. At this time, I am not skilled to teach braille note-reading.

Auditory

  • Piano student wearing noise-cancelling headphones during lesson

    It’s quite alright if the student covers their ears or wears noise-cancelling headphones. These devices are designed to silence the disrupting surround sound and filter only the dominant sound they wish to hear, which is the piano.

  • Students may appear to be bothered by the sound distortions to my voice on the iPad. The volume may be lowered, we can try to call again with a better connection, or complete the lesson using a smaller device (cellphone).
  • I almost never play on my piano together with the student because our pianos are very likely in different tuning. I use the classical guitar to accompany the student. I slide my fingers to adjust to your tuning, rather than making the student adjust to mine. With the nylon strings, it is a warm and pleasing non-metal sound which is quickly an instant favorite for many.
  • You will notice that I NEVER repeat any instructions and speak in age appropriate language. I don’t require that the student appear to be actively listening in a manner that has been determined as appropriate by others. Rather, I keep teaching knowing that he can hear me from any point in the house.

Accommodation

  • Some students are bothered by seeing themselves on the screen. For the first few weeks, they find it helpful to cover my face onscreen with a post-it note.
  • A post-it note can also be used to hide the notification bar and charge percentage, which distracts many students.
  • Sensory stim toys are encouraged, so please do keep your string and straw collection nearby! I’ll show the student my collection and encourage the use of all available tools to organize the physical body.
  • When there is a siren or airplane on my end, I will press mute on my computer.
  • Students who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants may remove them if the sound is distorted or overwhelming. We learn to feel our way around the instrument and listen for vibrations to correct the notes when playing.
  • Vocal stimming and all stimming is ignored. It doesn’t bother me and I continue to teach.
  • Crying or screaming is a non-issue for me, but it is discussed to learn more about the triggers. These triggers are resolved with an agreed upon accommodation, and the lesson continues.
  • Students may be dressed, in their underwear, or wearing anything that is comforting to them. I am not perturbed by students who suddenly strip.

Literacy

  • Parents sometimes insist that their child “can’t” or “doesn’t” read yet. A student does not have to prove that he can read in order to be able to read. Many students are hyperlexic and have an early ability to read without ever being taught. I presume competence until otherwise proven.
  • During the lesson, I will sing the lyrics of the song rather than the note names. This encourages the student’s eyes to hunt for the next note to play based on where he’s up to in the song. The parent may observe that he is reading and finding his way through the book.
  • I also ask students to sing the lyrics of a song. I prompt by speaking the lyrics first, and then have them play and sing. This offers the learning opportunity for pre-readers to learn phonetic skills on the fly, and piece reading concepts together almost instantly. Within 3-4 weeks, students are often literate above their age level.

Communication

  • Student is spelling on a RPM laminated letterboard to communicate during the lesson

    All types of communication is welcome. However, I have a strong preference for families to already be experienced in the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) and/or Facilitated Communication (FC).

  • Please have the AAC device on hand for communication during the lesson.  
  • I never ask a question and demand an answer, spelled, spoken, or signed. I presume competence and ask instead: “Which one is that starting note? Show me on piano”.
  • The piano becomes the instrument to demonstrate knowledge much like the letterboard is a tool to spell a response.
  • I am knowledgeable in basic American Sign Language and do try to sign while I speak to build fluency.

Social

  • Parent often request an assignment to play for grandma, or family Thanksgiving party, or for a school talent show. These requests are challenging to the student’s progress. They are a tease to what the student may want to do but may not be technically ready to do at that point in time. Playing piano publicly as a form of socialization is truly the highest compliment to your child’s training. However, please allow me to direct the pace and type of socialization.
  • Oftentimes during the second year of instruction, I will recommend that a family visit their local church and obtain permission to sit in the back while the choir rehearses. At that point, the student is ready to not only follow along on the sheet music, but they are skilled in solfege and sight-singing. It is delightful when the perfect pitch musician from the back of the room begins to sing without a pitch prompt, while most choristers are waiting for the note from the pianist.
  • Other socialization options are offered as time goes by and connections are made in your local and broader musical community.
  • The student and their family are informed when they are ready to join a band, orchestra, choir, or audition for colleges.

Learning

  • Your child’s learning style will be actively assessed in the first year. How they take in information, how they process and produce may be very different.
  • After the assessment, I will ask the student to rearrange their learning and productivity around their strengths. Sometimes a parent will insist “but my child needs a visual aid” or “can you just play it for them so they know what it sounds like?” I don’t teach in the traditional manner where supplemental supports are offered. Rather, the student is encouraged to use strengths from within to flourish.
  • It is my goal to build an independent musician who can demonstrate their talents on any piano from anyone’s music, without colored stickers, highlighters, and adaptive tools.

Emotional

  • I no longer teach students who have been exposed to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) interventions. The forced compliance and normalization takes a heavy toll on the child’s psyche. They become prompt dependent and wait for instructions to complete a task. I don’t offer ABA styled instruction in the lesson, nor do I allow parents to use ABA language during the lesson, such as “After piano, you will get MineCraft time”.
  • The lessons will be most successful if a healthy student-teacher relationship has occurred in the past. If every student-teacher encounter has resulted in trauma, I will be perceived as a threat. This would require the lessons to be hijacked by the emotional needs and relationship building, and little learning will take place.
  • Students who are homeschooled or unschooled may not consider me to have anything to offer to them, as they are accustomed to pace their learning based on their strengths rather than a class schedule. This is a positive and I work to build that learning relationship, but there may be lots of resistance at first.
  • Sometimes a student is having a rough day. We pause the learning and discuss it. It is not conducive for anyone to be forced to learn when there are other things going on. Sometimes a mere acknowledgement of their disposition is enough to get back on track without derailing the entire lesson.

Music Teachers — Learn the evidence-based method and teach piano to autistic students. Qualified piano teachers and senior-year music majors are eligible to enroll in the Doogri Institute training program. Click to learn more and inquire about your own professional training, and how to become a licensed Developmental Music Educator™ (LDME).

Please read: Why Piano Lessons for My Autistic Child? Top 10 Questions Answered by Autistic Piano Teacher.

 

Generalizing Standards for Autism Sensory Rooms

Not all sensory rooms are alike. When autistic people think of sensory rooms, they imagine a room designed for sensory deprivation for calming effects. When designers imagine sensory rooms, they try to cram in as much sensory information to satisfy all assumed criteria. Autistic people have preferences that vary so much, that sensory integration disorder was removed from the DSM-5. The reasoning was that if a there is no way to standardize an assessment for these differences, then there is no way to make a diagnosis, and then treat it.

Autistic people still have these sensory issues, even if the DSM no longer recognizes it. Sensory issues are prevalent in every type of neurodevelopmental disorder, such as ADHD, Angelman syndrome, Fragile X syndrome, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and Cerebral Palsy. All around the world, schools, retail chains, and airport, are all trying hard to accommodate these sensory issues. The most important thing for these designers to know is that even when they consult with one or two autistic people, they still are probably lacking on specific fundamentals based on a generalized whole.

Sensory “issues” stem from a neurological processing difference. Some autistics have heightened sensory perceptions, where the world is more vivid and noisy than to a neurotypical person. Other autistics have low perceptions, and can seem indifferent to the world around them. Professionals working with autistics must know about sensory variations.

There can be hyper-responsive (sensory seeking), hypo-responsive (avoiding), and rapid cycling between both variations. It’s critical to know that these exist, because otherwise, autistics might find themselves being led to a sensory room with blaring lava lamps and strobe lights in the name of accommodation, and find themselves triggered to the point of subclinical seizures. Yet again, some autistics will find such arrangements delightful, and it may be hard to wrestle them away from these stimuli.

It is imperative that designs should incorporate the actual need of autistics, and not per the idea of the funders of the project. When designs are ill-fitted to the need, we have industrial faux pas where toilet paper rolls are hung inside a shower door, or a 5-point harness is designed for a carseat by someone who has never had to put a child into a vehicle. These lived experiences are essential for avoiding awkward and injurious innovations that are counterintuitive and termed “design fails”.

 

When evaluating a sensory profile of an autistic person, check for the following:

  1. Look at their food choices. Do they prefer crispy-crunchy, or mushy-smooth? Do they prefer their foods to touch, or be strictly separated?
  2. Check their sleeping quarters. Do they like to have a popup tent, pillow fort, and weighted blankets? Do they sleep with their feet exposed, or undressed? Do they have trouble sleeping and toss/turn all night and wake up tired?
  3. Do they cover their ears to shield themselves from all sounds, some sounds, or human language sounds?
  4. Do they enjoy events in large venues, such as concerts? Do they take great effort to avoid gatherings of any kind?
  5. Can their eyes track on a screen when watching a movie or playing a video game? Are they using peripheral vision and muscle memory when writing, typing, or watching a ballgame?

The first is a sensory profile built on olfactory and tactile systems, since the mouth may feel assaulted by food stimuli which are not amenable to its schema. The second is an indication of arousal state, and how the individual prefers to wind down. The third is how the individual interacts with sound—less/silence is enough, or louder is heard better? The fourth is how the multisensory stimuli of sight and sound create a vortex around the person based on the acoustics of an outside space. Much like a room gets warmer when there are more people, the sound and lights will amplify in amplitude toward the autistic in the room. The fifth is how visual information is perceived with the least amount of fragmentation, as the central vision may take on too much information, or in bits, in conflict with a figure-ground extraction from a gestalt.

Once the sensory profile of the individual is identified, a sensory room can be planned to serve a particular set of needs. No single room should be organized to meet all types of sensory profiles, and rather, areas should be cordoned off for different needs. There may be a dark roo, with sound-reduction panels, and weighted items to use while adjusting the glow and color of the recessed lighting through remote control. There may be a lava lamp garden with customizable colors, since neon colors may cause a strobe effect on those who are sensitive to fluorescent rays. There might be a tactile room with nubby textured toys, stimmy balls, plastic grass mats, and rock or string collections. There should certainly be a room with acoustic music instruments, and an invitation to interact with others using this artistic medium. Start speaking to #actuallyautistic people, so your efforts don’t get lost in translation. All humans have a right to sensory safety and to prevent sensory violations.

 

Kaegan – Nonverbal perfect pitch piano matching test

Kaegan (21) is able to demonstrate perfect pitch during his 3rd piano lesson, thanks to the piano matching test. Did you know that 97% of autistic people have perfect pitch? (Kupferstein & Walsh, 2015). One obvious clue that it was time to test him came when Kaegan was singing the notes just from reading it, even before he heard it played from the piano. Please read about the nonverbal paradigm research study and the Rancer Method book for teaching music to gifted students, titled Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism.

Source:

Kupferstein, H., & Walsh, B. J. (2015). Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch. World Futures72(7-8), 390-405.