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.

Evaluating Behaviorists’ Claims of ABA as Evidence-Based and Best for your Autistic Child

Hi, I’m Henny Kupferstein, and this video is a short response to the self-confirmatory tactics employed by behaviorists, to justify their practice. In my recent paper (PDF), it is discussed that (1) an autism diagnosis comes from a parent who fills out a questionnaire about their child’s behavior and (2) the evidence for effectiveness of ABA comes from the behaviorists themselves. So—if the parent can purchase or create an autism diagnosis, (and I know this as a parent myself) and the behaviorist can fabricate an effectiveness, then I can use the survey as instrument to check for symptoms and to check for effectiveness, and to check for parent satisfaction. Behaviorists use the exact same instruments to prove their worthiness, but they are challenging my use of the same instruments to test for ineffectiveness.

It is well documented that the tobacco industry funded and used scientific studies to undermine evidence linking secondhand smoke to cardiovascular disease. Tobacco-company-funded studies have been conducted specifically to support the development of so-called “reduced-harm” cigarettes. Back in 1971, president Nixon appointed a special committee to push the increase for corn farming to sustain an income to farmers who were influential in the voting and representing their dying industry. Burgers became bigger, fries were cooked in corn oil, and corn syrup was used to sweeten cereals and 90% of foods eaten by Americans. The government initiative sponsored research to insist that corn does not contribute to obesity and to refute the effectiveness of low-carb high fat diets. Some studies even suggested that such diets were directly linked to the increase of heart disease!

Autistic people and autistic parents should be advised to keep the faith alive. You are not going to be hurt for much longer. Trust your intuition, follow your heart, and do right by your child. When you stand up to a so-called professional who says you must listen to them to prevent lifelong disability and dependency, check with yourself if those are outcomes that you are aligned with. Do you wish for your child to be normalized and be made “indistinguishable from his peers” by subjecting him to an intervention that was used for conversion therapy, and to support the practice of pray the gay away?

Behaviorism is no longer allowed for animals and it is unethical to train animals with rewards and punishment for scientific exploration. Know the facts, and stick to your guns. It’s your life. You should be in the driver’s seat when deciding on what your needs are. How you coexist in the world is of nobody’s concern except yours. YOU MATTER!

To all other ethical researchers out there—here is a call for you to propose research to demonstrate effectiveness of your work. However, when using the voice of the people you claim to help, you need to justify why you are excluding the voice of the people who you regard as incapable of providing informed consent or owning their narrative, in whichever way they relay it.

As an autistic researcher, mother of autistic children, and practitioner to nonspeaking autistics who rely on radically different means for communicating, a counterstudy must be able to account for the bias that is glaringly obvious. Thank you for sharing. Please subscribe to my channel to stay up-to-date on my research.

“Can perfect pitch be a problem when teaching note-reading to piano students?” Interview with Dima Tahboub

In this interview with Dima Tahboub of DoReMeStudio.com, we discuss how the Rancer Method builds neurological pathways to have magnify the gift of perfect pitch. Instead of the gift being a problem, there are surprising byproducts of the neuroplastic changes and visual motor cohesion, changes in eye tracking, and explosions in speech and vocalization.

Henny Kupferstein is the co-author of Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism, the book on the Rancer Method designed to teach note-reading for gifted students.

“The Right to an Education”, Article Typed by Non-Verbal Autistic Piano Student with Dyspraxia

NICOLAS JONCOUR

NICOLAS JONCOUR

Article typed by Nicolas Joncour, Piano Student

[First appeared in ZOOM Autism Through Many Lenses magazine, Issue 9, p. 20]

A decent life in France is practically impossible for an autistic student, especially if you are nonverbal like me. In special schools there is no real education, and the psychiatric hospital remains the norm. As my mother encounters more and more difficulties to enroll me in a normal school, the only solution to an equal opportunity is maybe to leave France. I want to go to university to study the Holocaust as people with disabilities are still destined to horrific fates.

My hope is to study history and the Holocaust, a subject that has intrigued me for almost six years. Specifically, Operation T4, which is the eradication of the people with disabilities by the Nazis. Perhaps the Holocaust interests me because I feel the discrimination in relation to my disability. The eyes of others are like deportation camps without return for me.

Without my mother I would likely be in a psychiatric hospital. The right to education definitely remains the domain of utopia. The more I grow, the more I realize I do not have my place in society. I have to fight to deserve to dream. My disability, autism and dyspraxia, makes me look like a mentally-challenged person. People talk to me as if I am a small child, and they watch my gestures as if I am a monster.

The reality is that all their looks are like the slam of a cattle wagon door. My connections towards the victims of Operation T4 are very strong, and my reality joins their fatal destiny. I have faith that helps me, and God gives me so much love that I do not feel alone. I think I have the right to denounce my condition and my social discrimination as long as I would suffer of it. The right to a dignified life is my fight, and I recently joined the ENIL Youth Network to create change. Nonverbal autistic people demand recognition of their right to a real education.

My life would be rather simple if people would consider me as a person rather than a thing to eradicate. I want my intelligence to be recognized without having to meet the low expectations of people who doubt me. The peculiarity of my disability is that I understand very well what kind of people I have to deal with. The inability to defend myself makes me vulnerable to all attacks. Not being able to express oneself orally is a very hard way to live.

People do not consider my written prose without doubt. Not even my relatives who do not understand autism. To be recognized, mentalities must change, and the way we move, having no eye contact and no speech, shouldn’t exclude us from living a fulfilled life. For this to happen, we need the right to education, an education which mustn’t be negotiable and should be accessible to all.


Nicolas Joncour is a 16-year-old nonverbal autis­tic student who types. He lives in France and is homeschooled and in mainstream school for a few hours per week.

Follow him on Facebook and visit his blog.