Catering for Learners with ASD

At the end of a private session recently, I engaged in a conversation with the parent of my learner, as I often do. The thing about this particular family is that I’ve been working with them for pretty much the entirety of my time living and teaching in Halifax. I’m very proud to say that these people have been – and continue to be – extremely formative to the development of my awareness of ASD. The reason for this? The learner in question has very high functioning autism, which was an area of my pedagogy and experience that was *gulp* non existent when I began teaching him.

The point? I’m focussing largely on my blog posting of late, and the aforementioned parent gave me some great feedback on my Helping Young Learners To Practise post that I published recently. Part of this feedback was that she thought it would be a great idea for me to blog about my experiences in dealing with learners with ASD. So here I am. At this point, I have to confess that I am not an expert, nor am I trying to come across as an expert. I’m simply extremely interested and open minded about the challenges that can be presented to us when teaching individuals with autism, and I’d like to share my learning so far.

Who is this post for?

I want to offer some confidence to two demographics of people through this post. Firstly, I want to help other instrumental teachers in need of ideas or viewpoints of dealing with learners with ASD and their approaches to these learners. Secondly, I want to offer parents that may be looking for an instrument teacher – or maybe already have an instrument teacher – a point of reference to develop their awareness of what a lesson could be like and offer some approaches that have worked for me. I’m going to be as candid as I can, so I hope you can take at least something from this. Let’s begin!


The starting point? What is ASD?

ASD stands for Autistic Spectrum Disorder. As the name suggests, ASD is a spectrum condition, meaning some individuals can exhibit characteristics that others may not. In the same way, some individuals can exhibit more characteristics than others (to varying degrees), so an experience dealing with one autistic individual is very unlikely to be completely the same as another. Having said that, there are certain characteristics/behaviours that you can expect to see that are largely seen as general traits of autism, such as:

  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Anxiety regarding ‘grey areas’
  • Anxiety regarding change
  • ‘Thinking out loud’
  • Very literal understanding of language and instructions
  • Very literal responses to questions, particularly open questions
  • Difficulty expressing thoughts as words
  • A requirement of more time to complete tasks, particularly tasks requiring hand/hand eye coordination
  • Very easily distracted
  • Difficulty concentrating in noisy environments, particularly when learning an instrument
  • Difficulty organising things, such as music by page number
  • A lack of awareness of ‘self’
  • Difficulties with socialising and integration
  • General anxiety

On my last point, there has been a lot of very compelling research to suggest that autism is more than simply a ‘disorder’ that someone is born with. There are a number of professionals that believe that autism is actually an issue with the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs our fight, flight or freeze responses, therefore an anxiety disorder.

As a final note, a learner may exhibit a variety of these behaviours whilst not being autistic. For example, someone struggling to maintain eye contact may just be non confrontational and shy. It is important to take the time and reach out to the right people to establish exactly what your learners needs are in these situations.


The Teacher’s Next Step? CYBYWY – Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself.

The first thing I have to say is something that should go without saying. As teachers, our primary focus is to help our learners access the absolute best of us; our professional experience, our personality and our approach. To do that, we have to be extremely self reflective and conscious of how we appear to each individual that we facilitate the learning of. Further to this, we also need to be very aware of how our individual characteristics and approach that as teachers influence the outcomes of our lessons, not just our planning. Never has there been a truer statement when dealing with autistic learners, for two reasons.

Reason 1.

Generally, when talking to an autistic individual, there are no ‘grey areas’; things are either yes, or no, and the individual’s understanding of language is extremely likely to be very literal. For example, if you issue an instruction that sounds more like an open question, such as ‘shall we play this now’, don’t be shocked if your learner says ‘no’. What will help develop a much better response is if that learner is able to trust both you and your answer. The easiest way to begin to gain this trust is to be consistent and precise with your approach, instructions and language. So, a much better instruction than ‘shall we play this now’ would be, ‘okay, now we’re going to play…’. This is much less likely to cause anxiety in the learner because they will know exactly what is expected of them since you will be issuing a closed statement. So, your language has to be to the point, focussed and unquestionable. This can be much harder to do at first than might be imagined.

Reason 2.

Autistic individuals often ‘say it as it is’. If an individual doesn’t like your shoes, you’ll likely hear about it. If an individual doesn’t like your hairstyle, you’ll likely hear about it. If an individual doesn’t like an aspect of ANYTHING they experience, you’ll likely hear about it. On the flip side, if an individual does like something that you are wearing or doing, you’ll also likely hear about it. This is to do with the way that a lot of individuals with ASD don’t have a ‘filter’ that helps them realise whether something is inappropriate or not. This is a large contributing factor to an individuals difficulty to integrate socially. The important point to remember is as follows; if something is said that offends you, in my experience it is very rarely intentional.

Why Should We Teachers Check Ourselves?

The reason I made this statement is due to my general understanding of how we all think about ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves on a daily basis.

It has been said to me numerously that certain people are incapable of teaching, and perhaps more importantly understanding autistic individuals. I do believe this is the case. But I don’t believe the story ends there, and I think everyone – with the right determination – can re-educate themselves and reconfigure their thinking to be brilliant with this type of learner. It has to be said, if you don’t ‘have yourself in check’ and are easily offended in any way, struggle to accept and act on feedback, or you lack the following skills, you should really spend some time with yourself trying to find out why this is the case. The skills are;

  • Compassion
  • Understanding
  • Patience
  • Introspection
  • Listening skills
  • Flexibility to adjust your teaching approach
  • Determination to invest time into your CPD
  • Self confidence

You owe it to your reputation, livelihood and to your learners to get yourself in check before you take a learner like this on. I’d actually suggest that this is true regardless of the learning needs of an individual.

These deficits are usually a result of the stories we tell ourselves about why something has happened the way it has, or how we expect something may, or will transpire. But, the stories we tell ourselves in our day to day lives are only stories as we read and experience them, and more often that not, people lacking any one of the above mentioned traits are in real risk of getting the wrong end of the stick within their story. We need to realise the reasons behind such negativity within us and understand where it comes from as an absolute priority, otherwise, we have almost no hope of being able to help.

If what I have said has struck a chord (pun intended!) and you wish to explore more about yourself, and others, I can highly recommend Professor Steven Peter’s The Chimp Paradox as a starting point. It could change your professional – and personal – life forever. It has certainly taught me a thing or two.


The Lessons. What can be expected?

I want to change the pace a little at this point of the blog with more anecdotal, practical examples of my experiences and less ‘deep thinking’. The idea is to hopefully help inspire some ideas for you to try within your lessons (if you are a teacher) or to suggest to your teacher (if you are a parent/carer). These are by no means exhaustive, but they have definitely worked for me, so can hopefully work for you, too!

Get to know your learners.

The typical things – such as like and dislikes – are a given that you should endeavour to know about any learner. However, other things such as humour, films, music, games and other hobbies/interests outside of guitar are useful to know about. Since building rapport is extremely important in every lesson regardless, sharing something in common with your learner is a quick and easy way of gaining trust and developing your teacher learner relationship. Trust can be especially hard to build in a learner with ASD due to their anxiety and difficulties socialising, so making a conscious effort to understand them is pretty much my ultimate, foundational piece of advice. An awareness of your learner’s likes can also help you in other ways, too, as I’ll detail next.

Try to incorporate your learner’s interests into your lessons regularly.

When you first approach new language or terms to your lessons, they can be very difficult for your learner to work with immediately as it may seem unrelated to your lesson, at least from the learners perspective.

A challenge I came up against once in my teaching was that of trying to teach about repeat marks. Teaching them was fine, but then my learner couldn’t process that language to the point it could be remembered then used, even though they recognised the ‘repeat mark’. One thing I was aware of, though, was that my learner played a video game called Portal, which involved creating ‘portals’ through which you walk to get to other parts of the game, or usefully end up back where you started. So, consequently, ‘repeat marks’ were renamed ‘portals’, which then enabled my learner to relate the game they enjoyed to the music we were playing. After a year or so, I then gradually reintroduced my learner to the correct terminology. To this day he is completely confident what repeat marks are, and can explain them very well, which is great for peer to peer learning and developing those social skills.

Choose your language carefully.

Naturally, as with any lesson you should always watch you P’s and Q’s and choose your language carefully. But what I’m suggesting here takes things to the next level. As we’ve already discovered, autistic learners take things literally and struggle with anxiety. The easiest way to make your learners’ experience extremely uncomfortable and anxious is to use different language for the same thing. For example, musicians generally think nothing of saying either ‘C’, ‘C major’ or ‘C triad’ when discussing, appraising or playing a C chord. To someone who is congnitively diverse, it is easy to learn the connection between these terms and think of them as one and the same. However, to an autistic learner, these three terms represent three different things, because they are literally different. My advice? Whatever it is that you are teaching your learner, make sure the terms you use within your lesson are as close to exactly the same as you can make them, each lesson. It will help to keep your learner on track, help you maintain the pace of your lesson and contribute to the building of trust.

I don’t want to make you fearful of using extra terms, though. Because, as musicians know, there are often a number of terms for describing any one thing in music. Since these terms exist, it is only right for us to have the focus and desire to expose our learners to these extra terms gradually, and only when our learners have unquestionable mastery over the term they are currently working on. Which leads me to my next point…

Patience is a virtue.

Teachers are all generally well aware of the fact that people learn at different paces. However, the cognition and processing of new information to an autistic learner can take a lot of repetition to commit to long term memory. On top of this, co-ordination between the hands and the eyes can be very hard for your learner, but these skills can be developed.

Realistically, you need to be prepared for a lesson that might take two weeks for a learner without autism to take two months (or even longer) for an autistic learner. Autistic learners are usually fastidious with details, too, which really works in the favour of music appraisal and listening skills. If you are aware of this and sentitive with your teaching approach, you can use this attention to detail as an amazing learning tool and a way to develop strategies to add the variety and repetition needed to create a skilled, confident musician.

Be very open minded about including parents in your lessons and asking for feedback.

This point is really easy if you are extremely reflective and open minded as a practitioner. I certainly am, and I really dislike not having the answer to a problem. As a result, I’m constantly looking for solutions to issues that I may come across, and I’m happy to approach anyone with the knowledge I need for an answer. Hands down, the best person to ask about your learner is their parent. As I mentioned earlier, autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that no two learners should necessarily be approached in the same way. When looking for ideas for your lessons, always aproach the right people, in this case the parents/carers, as they can often direct you to approaches or resources that can help you think differently about your lessons and how to get the best out of your learner.

If you can, set your room/learning environment up, and set it the same way every time.

The idea behind setting your room up is simple; to give yourself the opportunity to remove any distractions and to prevent distracions occurring within the lesson. The idea behind setting the room/learning environment up the same way every time is that you’ll help lessen or prevent any anxiety within your learner and help your lessons get off to a much smoother start.

Keep instructions clear, concise and focussed.

Autistic learners like to know exactly where they stand and exactly what is expected of them, so keep instructions closed and achievable. Open instructions are likely to trigger a thought in your learner’s mind and could yeild a ‘thinking out loud’ response that may be counterproductive to your lesson.

Don’t feel awkward about BRIEFLY going off topic in your lessons.

If you teach your learner later in the day, after school for example, there is often little to no chance of telling whether or not your learner has had a good day. Usually, you’ll find this out within your lesson when the demeanour of your learner is different to usual. As I mentioned earlier, getting to know your learner will work to your advantage, especially if you are made aware that they aren’t feeling 100%. Do they have a favourite joke? A favourite song? A favourite film? A favourite animal? Any other hobbies outside of their instrument? I often find a short distraction based on my learners’ interests or humour can help get them out of their shell and back on track with the lesson.

Award EVERY achievement, no matter how small they may seem to you.

I’ll say no more on this.


To conclude, I really hope this post gives you some ideas. But, I must reiterate, I don’t consider myself an expert in this area. I’m just an intrigued guy who makes the choice to take regular, conscious journeys to improve not just my teaching and thinking, but my self. I have found most of the things discussed in this post challenging to learn about and apply, but I’m of firm belief that if I can do it, so can you. And trust me, it’ll be an amazing experience.

Please let me know what you liked, or even disliked in the comments beneath. I’d love to know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Catering for Learners with ASD

  1. This is a beautifully written post, that as a parent of a child with ASD, would have been so useful to us when starting our journey in trying to help him access lessons. I’ve shared this with the local ASD pages in the hope that this might benefit other parents, I hope that’s ok.

    1. Hi Kirsty! Thank you for your feedback, it is really great to hear that this post is something that you feel would have benefitted you, but could also benefit others. Please feel free to share!

  2. As a fellow educator (primary school teacher) and parent of a child with traits of adhd & Asd/c (awaiting camhs report at the moment) you have provided such a fabulous insight into his world and how everyone must and should be around him. Teachers do need to change their styles when they do not work in the classroom. Your comment re fight/flight and anxiety is absolutely correct and in reality this condition needs to be renamed and addressed as this; it sums it up perfectly for everyone and would provide our young people with the thinking processes/support of the teaching community and most importantly give the help they so desperately need.

    1. Hi Vicky! Thank you for taking the time to comment, I’m really happy that this post positively resonated with you and your personal experiences with your son. There is definitely more work to be done helping autistic learners within the teaching community, especially in the field of instrument tuition!

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