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.

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

Why ABA Piano Students Struggle to Believe in Themselves, Despite Musical Gifts

I teach piano to non-verbal and autistic students every day. Most have perfect pitch and a very high degree of musical aptitude. Along with their diagnosis comes a trail of baggage from earlier teacher-student relationships. Students as young as five may display behaviors that can be interpreted as aggressive and harmful to themselves and others, behaviors that make them seem like they aren’t paying attention, or behaviors that make them appear as if they don’t understand the instructions of the task at hand. I experience ignorance and intolerance of sensory accommodations from ABA therapists and behaviorally-trained educators observing my work with the Rancer Method. Their focus is on the ABA-type treatment interventions. It is the majority and sadly not unusual.

VIDEO: Why ABA Piano Students Struggle to Believe in Themselves, Despite Musical Gifts

The distinct differences in the success of my students are directly linked to their early exposure to esteem-building teacher-student relationships, and whether ABA was a big part of their early intervention. It becomes apparent when a student has been exposed to ABA for more than 10% of their lifetime (e.g. 6 months for a five-year-old child). They become prompt dependent for minor tasks. They lose track of their inner awareness and become unable to take clues from their inside-body to self regulate. Dysregulations turn into complete brain-fry. These system shutdowns are neurological and not in their control anymore.

When a student is in a verbal loop, repeating the same word over and over, and their body is shaking, it becomes time to physically redirect the body into a different setting. I will advise the parent to turn their child on the piano bench so their back is to the piano. The loop instantly stops because he is now in a different environmental state. The student will automatically turn his body back to the piano, completely regulated, and ready to resume. It is a shame that we allow people to grow up with a mindset that they have to allow others to tell them how to function, how to be, what to work for, and when to take a break. We owe it to our students to teach them how to prevent overwhelm without physically prompting them into an environmental redirect. See this article for strategies: Teaching piano student to stim as overwhelm prevention  

Autistic ABA Survivors Grow into Soul-Crushed Teenagers: Tracing the Roots of the Damage

All humans are born with the capacity and drive to seek out a distinct individual sense of self. This agency is robbed of autistic people who are conditioned under behavioral therapy with ABA (applied behavior therapy) to have a misconstrued sense of influence and control.

ABA is discrimination because the behaviors to be modified are targeted on the basis of disability. ABA is also extreme oppression because it is silencing a minority when their behavior (stimming) is not a threat to the majority and it allows them to function in a healthy way. The specific focus of the intervention is not primarily on helping a child to learn functional life skills such as brushing their teeth. Rather,  ABA practitioners are systematically forcing children to perform tasks without stimming, which autistic people must employ to move comfortably and efficiently through the environment.

Amy is an autistic teenaged piano student with perfect pitch. After every measure of four notes played, I ask her if she played it correctly since I know she can hear it and identify her mistakes by ear. For more than a year, she has always responds with, “I don’t know. Was it?” Recently, I asked Amy, “How do you know you are a good person?”

She answered, “Because people say, Good job, Amy.”

I probed a bit more: “So if you watch TV and don’t do math homework, how do you know you’re a good person?”

“Well, then I’m not a good person. I suck!”

Amy has grown to define her identity by the verbal affirmations of the tasks she has performed, whether good or bad. The consequence of the plummeting dignity and pulse of her human spirit is that educators feel compelled to keep lowering the bar to reflect her outwardly dull shell. Amy is now being rewarded for showing up to 3rd grade math class even if she fails the tests. She now presents like a robot that inhales and exhales daily, while completely disconnected from her ability to self-check her own performance for anything. Amy just lives her life waiting for a particular kind of feedback from the world around her to know how to operate next.  

B.F. Skinner was a 20th century American behaviorist who believed that thoughts, emotions, and actions are exclusively products of the environment. With that premise, he centered his discipline theories on rewards rather than punishment. The ABA practices rely heavily on operant conditioning so the student can modify their behavior to earn a reward. Practitioners will condition the environment so students will modify their behavior not because they fear the punishment, but because they fear losing the reward. That to me is still relying on fear as a deterrent, which is a very concerning psychological stressor.

An extreme behavior modification that is intentionally conditioned to be a response to an external stimulus can be a direct contributor to a permanent psychological trauma. Carl Jung agreed with Sigmund Freud’s experiments on word associations: a disturbance occurs each time a stimulus word has touched upon a psychic lesion or conflict (Jung, 1989, p. 147). An intervention that undermines a fundamental right of human functioning is a civic transgression, and a legitimate moral worry that must be publicly deliberated. One hundred years ago, Skinner tried to demystify the human condition. Today, autistic culture has a long way to go before it can be accepted for its unique contribution to the future of mankind.  

For all those who argue that ABA helped their child develop speech, know that speech is only a mark of achievement when a child is not like Amy: She is verbal, but her spirit is dead. How can we fix this? Read UNDOING OPERANT CONDITIONING TRAUMA WITH AUTISTIC PIANO STUDENTS.

Sources:

Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, Dreams and Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.


IMPORTANT! Please take the ABA Early Childhood Intervention Survey for my Research Study click here for the link (Survey for Autistic adults 18+, or parents of autistic children)

Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View

Autistic disruptive and injurious behaviors are often seen as problematic. Sensory overload significantly distresses the autistic brain and triggers a halt in all cognitive abilities. Oftentimes, such ‘shutdowns’ might even be undetected sub-clinical seizures. Physiologically, the abrupt onset of sensory overload shutdowns are characterized by eye twitching, headaches, rage, and episodes of staring blankly into space.   

Freud observing autistic girl case study. Artwork by HennyK.com

Freud observing autistic girl case study. Artwork by HennyK.com

The overloaded system will attack with a fight-adrenaline for the purpose of staying alive. The threat of the fire alarm assaulting the autistic nervous system is greater than a herd of wolves chewing away your camping tent. We cannot measure a panic response that is driven by a system made hyperresponsive by extreme perceptual distortions, which are highly individualized. We also cannot judge a behavior as abnormal or a problem, when the survival and sanity of the autistic person is dependent on the behavior’s execution.

Sigmund Freud argues that man learned to survive by making use of all utilities and resources accessible to him. For the continuity of the species, “with every tool, man is perfecting his own organs, whether motor or sensory…[enhancing or] removing the limits to their functioning (Freud, 1989, p. 43)”. For example, early humans extinguished fire with the stream of their urine. The extinguishing of fire is not a problematic behavior when understood as a purposeful act with an intention to advance the needs and functioning of the individual.

For autistic people, stimming and flapping are tools for self regulation. The more they do it, the more they are listening to you, or concentrating on the task at hand. The more sensory information you force them to integrate simultaneously, the more you are forcing them to revert to their primal need to just survive. When the mammalian brain goes into survival mode, you no longer reserve the right to pathologize the response as a behavior problem.

Source: Freud, S., Strachey, J., & Gay, P. (1989). Civilization and its discontents. New York: W.W. Norton.