Why Piano Lessons for My Autistic Child? Top 10 Questions Answered by Autistic Piano Teacher

I teach piano to nonspeaking and autistic students around the world. The most common themes that come up during an initial parent consult are answered below.

  1. My child is nonverbal and cannot focus for more than a few minutes. How will you deal with that during a piano lesson?


I never repeat myself and use age-appropriate language. Autistic students are not deaf. They can hear and learn from any point in the house. Even when they move away from the instrument during the lesson, my teaching will continue. They may jump on the trampoline, roll on the floor, sit on the couch, and still benefit. When they are ready, they may return to the instrument and apply everything they have learned. Appearing to lack focus is not an actual concern, as I know that the autistic body betrays the intentions of the mind. I disregard the body movement and carry on with the lesson. Stimming is strongly encouraged to prevent overwhelm, and students are provided tips on how to stim privately if they feel ashamed. Please read Reframing Autistic Behavior Problems as Self Preservation: A Freudian View. Lessons are 30 minutes per week, and attention and focus is guaranteed to increase over time.


  1. My child is fixated on the iPad. Won’t Skype lessons distract him?


The iPad or device will never be propped on the piano in front of the student’s face. There are no flashing lights or sound bursts, and seizure triggers are meticulously avoided. You will be instructed on appropriate device placement. The student should have the privacy of their home space which accommodates their sensory needs within their own environment. As the teacher, I need to be able to enter the student’s learning space without invading their physical world. Together, we make advances in the training without disruption. Sometimes, there is a sudden and overwhelming interest to watch the charge percentage, or notification popups. There are also students who are bothered by seeing themselves on the screen. These issues are easily solved with placing a post-it note to cover the trigger zones on the screen. In the first few weeks, the student will recognize that the device is a means for connecting to a very pleasurable lesson time, and that the device can be utilized for this purpose. This is when we shift from using the iPad just for YouTube time, and into positive associations which the student will not want to disrupt by touching the device during the lesson. See Video of 20-Second Sensory Overload Simulation Exercise (seizure trigger alert). I often get random FaceTime calls on a weekend from a student who is playing with their iPad, but prefers to see my face instead—I can’t blame them!


  1. She is obsessed with music and listens to the same favorites, over and over and over. Can we use lessons to help her broaden her musical interests?


It is my passion to harvest these dormant strengths and convert them to skills that are highly sophisticated and valued by society at large. At least 97% of autistic people have perfect pitch, and an innate photographic memory for sound, images, and muscle memory (visual-spatial). This insatiable need to be surrounded by sounds at all time can be doubly satisfying when the student can create and recreate music they already love, and learn to play from written notation. Piano lessons taught with the Rancer Method will broaden their musicianship skills so they can play many genres and enjoy classical music.


  1. We have a tiny apartment and there is no room for a piano. Can we still have lessons?


A piano is about 5 feet wide, 18 inches deep. It is half the size of a child’s bed, and smaller than a doctor’s exam table or office desk. An acoustic instrument can be purchased used from a reputable piano store, often in the $1000 range. Piano stores guarantee their refurbished instruments, so it is a worthwhile investment. Pianos can be rented from your local music store for $30-$50 per month. Many stores will allow rent-to-own, or renting to accumulate a credit for when you are ready to make your first purchase. A piano will need to be tuned by a technician at least once per year, and local rates vary from $45 to $125 per tuning. A quality instrument is required for piano lessons, much like rollerblades and protective wear are required for ice hockey practice.


  1. He is getting 30 hours of behavior therapy each week, and we are considering homeschooling next year. Can the therapist sit in on the lessons?


Behavior therapy may have an intention to correct your child’s behaviors so they are more socially acceptable by you and others. I no longer consider piano students for my practice if they are receiving ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), or any behavioral interventions with goals to normalize behavior. It is my belief that autistic people should be distinguishable from their peers, because forcing them to be like neurotypicals is harmful to their identity and neurological function. Behavioral therapists are not allowed to observe or sit in on the lessons. Other support staff such as occupational therapists, physical therapists, or speech therapists, are welcome to observe without disruption. The only person who may sit on the right side of the piano near the student and provide required support (such as pointing in the book to hold the eye’s attention) is a parent or longtime caregiver who can follow through on consistent practice during the week. Please read this research study titled, “ Evidence of Increased PTSD Symptoms in Autistics Exposed to Applied Behavior Analysis” available as a PDF.


  1. My son has severe regressive autism and is low functioning. He also covers his ears when I sing, or when sounds bother him. He gets anxious about being observed when singing or playing. Will you be teaching him how to appreciate his favorite songs instead?


No, I won’t be teaching him The Wheels on The Bus or Barney. Your child will be learning to read musical notes and play in the classical tradition. As far as his autistic traits, I ask that you adopt the identity-first language preferred by autistic people over the person-first language of “with autism”. We also don’t subscribe to the functional labeling of our behaviors. When an autistic person is labeled as severe and regressive, their identity is concealed by how they are expected to behave, whereby their potential is marginalized. When you call me high-functioning, you are validating that I have successfully faked and masked my needs to satisfy your stereotypical impression of what autism should or shouldn’t look like. Lessons will be taught to the known strengths of autistic people, such as note-reading with visual pattern recognition, and perfect pitch.


  1. Her motor skills are very poor. She cannot use her fingers to write with a pencil, and requires support for dressing and feeding. Will she be able to use her hands for playing the piano?


At least half of autistic people have a diagnosed motor movement disorder such as hypotonia, poor muscle tone, dyspraxia, dystonia, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The other half remain undiagnosed but experience clumsiness, trouble with coordination, awkward gait, and require caregiver support to hold their arms in playing position. The piano lessons will be in accordance with the Rancer Method, which is evidence-based, and specifically aims to strengthen visual-motor cohesion. Students have been observed to go from no finger movement to complete and independent movement of all ten fingers within 6-12 weeks. One example is a student who has benefitted from lessons to prep for his bar-mitzvah, and convert visual-motor clues to independently don his Tallit (prayer shawl) just in time for his big day despite persistent motor challenges. Other students are benefitting from the Perfect Perch hand support device, which stimulates independent movement of the fingers for the piano without caregiver support. A wide variety of students have benefitted from the Rancer Method, including students with down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and post-stroke paralysis. Visual impairment and other learning differences are also accommodated.


  1. He doesn’t speak at all and we don’t think he can read. How will we know that he understands what you are teaching?


Speech is not a requirement for piano lessons. In fact, 80% of my piano students have benefitted from RPM (Rapid Prompting Method) to demonstrate their knowledge in academic subjects. The student is encouraged to sing the letters of the song they are playing, which is then expanded into singing the accompanying lyrics. Since speech production and singing are produced from two very different parts of the brain, the student’s strengths contribute to strong musicianship skills. Anecdotally, students who spell on letterboards or keyboards have indicated that they felt able to transition into ten-finger typing after about 3 months of lessons. Many RPM users have also been able to start announcing the letter they are about to spell, or even speak the word they have just spelled. Speech does not represent high intelligence nor prove musical knowledge. Testing for perfect pitch is done in the Rancer Method of piano matching (see Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch available as a PDF). Please see this video of a student who is typing to change lyrics of a song, to his delight. Rates will compare to qualified professional fees for specialized supports, such as horse or pool therapy, and special-needs martial arts training.


  1. How much do you charge? What are your fees?


Rates are discussed after the initial consult. This is because students are carefully screened to ensure that the lesson outcomes can be guaranteed. Family dynamics, attitude toward autistic people, and support systems are all considered. Lastly, since most students qualify to participate in a number of clinical trials, participation is encouraged and tuition is adjusted when they are identified as a candidate for a study. Scholarships are not available and a sliding scale is not offered. However there are a number of non-profits that support the purchase of instruments and music lessons for students with disabilities (see rawkstars.org or https://www.music-usa.org/musiclinkfoundation. Due to the nature of the 1:1 instruction, the piano lessons are private and not considered a “class”.


  1. His sister has been taking lessons for two years but she still struggles with note-reading. Will you also be able to teach my other children, in case they get jealous?


No—I never teach siblings (or twins) at the same time. It is in the best interest of the student that he or she be the only one in the family to show off his talents as he chooses. In my experience, it is detrimental to the self-esteem of the autistic student if there is competition between siblings, and especially if one sibling progresses at a different pace than another. When a sibling (or parent) is considered for lessons, the primary student must be at a specific place of achievement, which is sometimes possible at around 18 months in.


I hope these questions offer some more insight into the potential options for piano lessons for your autistic child. It is the goal to meet the musical, emotional, and physical needs of each student, regardless of their observed functioning. Please read Before You Pay for Piano Lessons: Little Johnny’s Bill of Rights to understand why the teacher should focus on the student’s development over the performance outcomes. Ready for a consult? Click here to book a consult.