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GUEST POST: Autism Refresher Part 1

Students on the Autism Spectrum in your Classroom
As the new school year gets underway, a quick refresher on autism spectrum disorder will help us better serve this growing population. First, a few facts about autism:
·         The latest estimates are that autism affects one in 88 children.
·         The term Autism describes a “spectrum” of issues characterized by difficulties or differences with communication and social understanding, as well as repetitive behaviors or intense interests.
·         Autism can look very differently from person to person. Autism Speaks has a saying –
Rhoda Bernard

“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

It can be difficult to develop teaching strategies for individuals with autism because no one approach or method works with all individuals on the autism spectrum. Teachers should pay attention to students’ strengths and use them to help students succeed, as well as to fill in gaps in their knowledge. For example, an autistic child with a very strong aural memory will learn easily with auditory modeling. A student with autism who has perfect pitch will play new melodies easily by ear, but may need help developing music reading skills.

At the Boston Conservatory Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum, which I direct (, Master’s students in Music Education receive ongoing training and support in behavioral teaching approaches, using visual tools, and developing structures and schedules for their young students on the autism spectrum.

A quick and dirty introduction to some of the main principles of each of these -
Behavioral Teaching Approaches:
·         Having skills broken down into small, discrete steps – the smaller, the better.
·         Repetition and practice – which we know so well as musicians.
·         Skills introduced in a logical, step-wise sequence – this is extremely important for autistic students, who crave logical connections as they learn.
·         Prompting and systematic prompt fading – start with larger prompts and gradually reduce them over time.
·         Specific programming to promote generalization – transfer of skills to other contexts. Help students practice and prepare to use their newly acquired skills in a new context.

Using Visual Tools:
·         Visual aids of every kind you can think of will help students on the autism spectrum to understand concretely some of the abstract aspects of music.
·         Write out the letter names of notes onto post-its and put them on the keys of the piano.
·         Use flashcards to drill and teach note names, rhythmic values, key signatures, and other important information.

Developing Structures and Schedules:
·         Post an agenda for the class, listing all of the activities in order.
·         Either cross off, erase, or put a check mark after each item as you complete it.
·         Reassure students that it is all right if you aren’t able to address every item on the agenda during a class session.

The Boston Conservatory Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum holds an annual conference, Teaching Music to Students on the Autism Spectrum, every May. It will be held on May 9 and 10, 2014. See for more information about the program.

The Boston Conservatory is presenting an autism-friendly performance of Oklahoma on Sunday, October 20 at 2 p.m.

For more information about me, see
Until next time,


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