How does the autism mind-body disconnect interfere with piano lessons?
In this video, the student is in his 20th week of instruction. He is playing his assigned piece which he has practiced and knows well. Suddenly, his body fails to comply and he appears to “fail” at the task. In my work, teaching the students about the science of movement is key to help them organize their chaotic bodies and take control of sensory dysregulation, dyspraxia, dystonia, and other motor movement issues. It is critical to help the students learn self awareness. I strive to build their self esteem as they advance in their music education but their hands cannot prove that they know how to play the material placed on front of them. Remind them that you will keep teaching, if they will stick with the plan of “talking” to their bodies. Make a “deal” and watch them flourish.
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 piano lessons videos. 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
Kupferstein, H. (2018) Evidence of Increased PTSD Symptoms in Autistics Exposed to Applied Behavior Analysis. Advances in Autism, 1(1), 19-29. DOI :10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016 [PDF]
Kupferstein, H., & Walsh, B. J. (2016). Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch. World Futures, 72(7-8), 390-405. [PDF]