Music for the Child with Autism by Stephen Shore

I like this article by Stephen Shore on the benefits of music for children on the autism spectrum.  In my experience I spend some time during every class to play music.  I prefer the simple earth rhythm music where they can easily participate and hold a shaker or bell and and play a simple heart beat rhythm along with me as I play my frame drum.  This helps everyone including you to get connected to their center of self and helps the right and left hemispheres of the brain to work together to focus on learning.  Earth rhythm music also helps these children to ground as they have a tendency not to be grounded.

I find that having a special time for music works best and then teaching the rest of the class with no music as it can be distracting.  I also encourage them to open up their hearing to listen to the natural music in the outdoor environment.


Music for the Child with Autism by Stephen Shore

Music enhances communication
There are many benefits to using music with people on the autism spectrum. One of these benefits is that Music provides the structural regularity that children with autism need. Within that structure it is possible to expand that child’s repertoire of functioning. Depending on the child’s placement on the autism spectrum I find that music assists with communication in different ways. For the child at the severe end, music is often the means of communication. Often, as I start a music session for children at this portion of the spectrum, the excitement and pleasure of music is clearly visible.

For the moderately involved child, music can serve as a carrier signal for verbal communication. One child, while having no functional communication, had a storehouse of holiday and children’s songs in her head. I only found this out one day when I didn’t play the last note of a song. Not only did she say the correct word, she sang it at the right pitch. My only wish is that I would have been able to continue working with her in order to move this verbal ability towards functional communication. With limited verbal children of this nature, it is often possible to get them to vocalize and supply the missing words to a song they know by suddenly stopping the song and accompaniment at points of maximal tension. These places of “maximal tension” (Miller & Eller-Miller, 1989, p. 65, 93) occur at the cadences during the last few notes before the final note of the music.

Music, for the child with high-functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome can serve to organize the verbal communication skills that already exist. All of my communications with one particular child with Asperger Syndrome are sung. If I mistakenly lapse into a typical conversational tone, he loses focus, engages in self-stimulatory activities, and drifts away. In addition, given sufficient interest on the child’s part, the music sessions may transform into fairly typical music lessons.

During our first session I created a system where the child asked me for pieces of paper that had the letter names of the notes. Once this series of events was internalized I expanded the routine by having him place the notes on the appropriate place on the music staff. This system was expanded further by having him draw a circle on the staff where the note belonged and write in the letter of the note. Then he would give the note to his mother. Fine motor problems were present and drawing a circle first helped confine where the note should go. Asking him on which space or line the note should go on (as opposed to a generic “Where does the note go?”) also helped. The system was expanded yet again by having the child guess which note I had in my hand. After guessing correctly he then had to write the note on the staff before receiving the piece of paper.

We then took turns with him holding the notes, with either his mother or I having to guess which note he had in his hand. When it came time for me to write the note in the staff I would ask him in a singing voice on which line or space it went.

Other parts of the session were spent in imitative drumming, and later, work on the recorder. I made certain that we took turns in leading the imitation. This was a good activity to do when he seemed to be fading away and losing focus. His mother quickly caught on to our activities; participated very well in the session and we all had a pleasurable experience. The child has a lot of musical ability and using the Miller Method approach, he was taught to play the recorder and later the piano which he now plays well.

Music in Groups
When working with a group of children, music can be used to organize childrens’ behavior by having them walk or otherwise move to the rhythm of the music. Often I will have them march in a circle as I play music on a keyboard. With help of aides I will have the students stop when I stop playing and continue when I resume. When the children understand when to stop and start, I will turn this into a game similar to “musical chairs” where the person who stops moving last will be “out” and will have to sit down. Realizing that it is unreasonable to expect these children to sit still with their hands folded while the game plays itself out, a shaker is handed to them — but not before they ask for it and identify the piece of fruit the shaker represents, if appropriate. The worst possible thing that I have too often seen, is the sight of children sitting in a circle around a large instrument with nothing to do while they wait to take a turn on the instrument. Typically, when this is done, the children fall into a disorganized mass of stimming and challenging behaviors. This situation, caused by failing to engage all the children in a classroom, is entirely preventable. Continue reading “Music for the Child with Autism by Stephen Shore”