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Integrating Students With Autism and Special Needs Into a School Band Program

Updated on April 16, 2014
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My friend has a teenage son with Aspergers and recently posted on Facebook how upset she was that her son, who has played in school band for 5 years was told that he did not meet the band directors performance criteria to be a part of the band this year. Band is the only group activity her son has ever shown an interest in. Hearing this story broke my heart because I worked as a music teacher in public school for 3 years and as a music therapist at a special needs school 7 years and did my best to keep every child in my band that wanted to play. This situation prompted me to write this article about techniques I picked up as a music therapist to help keep ALL students successful in the band program.

Boy with Aspergers playing the trumpet (0:15)

Students with special needs are often interested in listening to, and learning to play music. Music is a great solo as well as group activity. Finding a group activity a student with autism or other special needs wants to participate in is often a challenge. Taking advantage of this group activity and doing our best to encourage continued participation should be a priority. As you read my suggestions, keep in mind that you may get students who are unable to, or greatly struggle with reading. Not having the ability to read words does not necessarily mean they can not read music, but you may have to learn new techniques that will go against how you now teach.

Autistic Superstars - All participants in this group are diagnosed with autism (2:48)

Tips for teaching special learners a musical instrument:

Learning by ear. Some children have an amazing ability to hear something once and repeat it back. I had a student with autism who had a great talent for this. I could play something once and he could perfectly repeat it. This can be very helpful when learning parts for group band. They can practice this skill by learning a song they know and like. Success is more important than music reading skills with special learners.

Autistic Boy Performing by Ear (2:21)

Autistic boy playing violin by ear (1:03)

Focus on rhythm reading alone if learning to read music is an issue. For some reason reading rhythm is not as difficult. You can write out the rhythm of a band song and write the note names above the rhythm. If you are a music teacher you may be cringing at my saying this, but what we learned of teaching music was geared toward one style of learners and if a student doesn't learn it that way it is wrong or they are unable to succeed at playing an instrument. We have to change the way we teach because our students have diverse learning styles. Not all of our students will become professional musicians. We have the ability of giving every student the skill of playing music which they can receive enjoyment from their entire lives.

Some can learn to read music but the process is slower. I used this technique with younger learners as well as special learners. Make your first staff one line (it will be one note). Place your rhythms on the one line. Have them practice reading the rhythms with the one note. When mastered, add a second note either just below or just above the one line. When they can master reading two notes, add the other space note , then add another line and so on until they are able to read a full staff. This is a slow process, but does end in success with a child who might not otherwise be able to master note reading.

Some of your students may have a form of synesthesia, known as graphemean, or the ability to associate musical notes with colors. An example of this would be every time they hear a "C" they see red. You may be able to color code the notes on the paper to further assist in your students success.

Life with synesthesia (6:50)

Things to keep in mind as the band director:

What is your goal? Is your goal to train only children who will grow up to be professional musicians or to give every child the life long gift of having the ability to play an instrument? I am by no means asking you to lower your standards for those excelling, just accommodate those who learn differently.

How important is perfect form? Some children are incapable of perfect embouchure or holding their fingers in perfect position. This does not mean they can't play the instrument successfully. Find what the student can do well and focus on that. If someone can have the ability to play a musical instrument whenever they want for the rest of their lives and gain enjoyment from it, who cares if their embouchure or finger position isn't perfect.

If you are a music instructor with further insight, please share your techniques in the comment box below. If you would like more information please feel free to leave a comment and I will respond.


If you are a band director, would you consider/already use any of these techniques?

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© 2013 HeatherH104

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    • just helen profile image

      just helen 3 years ago from Dartmoor UK

      I have just finished reading a biography of Beethoven, and got the distinct impression he was on the spectrum. Once you know about it you see AS everywhere.

    • HeatherH104 profile image
      Author

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      I agree Helen. I think it's despicable what he's done. That's why I thought it was so important to write this hub. :)

    • just helen profile image

      just helen 3 years ago from Dartmoor UK

      I feel very sad for this boy, though, Heather. Life is hard enough for people with aspergers, but if they can find something they are good at such as music, something which helps them integrate with 'normals' (whoever they are!), that can only be for the good. Sounds like the bandmaster may be on the spectrum. He obviously cannot empathise with this boy's needs.

    • HeatherH104 profile image
      Author

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      Helen - it sounds like you are right on with your teaching model. Music should be a skill everyone can enjoy. Teachers who nag to the point that the student doesn't like it and doesn't want to play are doing a disservice.

      How interesting that you are synesthetic! I think there are more people than we realize who experience this. I don't have it, but find it fascinating.

      Thanks for sharing! :)

      Heather

    • just helen profile image

      just helen 3 years ago from Dartmoor UK

      Hi Heather! This is very interesting as I have had (with hindsight) quite a few pupils with aspergers. I think I have one now, undiagnosed. He is so clever and musical but displays bizarre behavior at the piano.

      I only ever want my pupils to enjoy their music making. If any more comes out of it, then great. Most don't take it further after 18, sadly.

      I am synesthetic! Musical notes and days of the week have colours for me,and strangely, they are closely linked. F# minor is definitetly a light purple, which is why, I think it is used in funeral music by composers of the past. (Purple is associated with death). A is definitely green, and lots of pastoral music is in A, a bright cheery key, don't you think? And yes, C is red, very martial and war like. Helen

    • HeatherH104 profile image
      Author

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      Crafty- I'm glad you found it too.

      I'm so sad and frustrated with your sons experience last year. Sad that he was being denied access to the arts, and frustrated that people are still so ignorant that they use the arts as a reward/punishment when in fact it is a tool - a real way for some to communicate and express themselves. In many cases, the only tool that works. I've had teenagers speak their very first word in my music class. I had an aggressive teenager sing what he was frustrated about when he was unable to just say in words what was wrong. There were many aggressive kids where I used to work to the point that all staff had to yearly take "How to Properly Restrain" classes. I worked there 8 years and never once had to restrain anyone.

      You got me riled up a bit. Lol.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. :)

      Heather

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 3 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      It's too bad for your son, Crafty. He must have been really sad not to be able to play music during the whole year!

      For some kids, music is like their oxygen!

      I am glad that this year is a better year for him. Good experiences will be excellent for his self esteem!

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

      Heather, you've known me long enough to know my son has Autism. I didn't see this Hub until now. Sometimes I don't get notifications of new Hubs published. I'm so glad I found it. I think any thing we can do to get the message out there, we'll be better off for it as a world.

      Last year my son was in a special public school which had behavioral support staff. The first time I sat in a teacher/parent meeting, despite all of the diagnosis and hospital reports I brought to the table, the administration decided my son would only participate in art and music IF he behaved well enough in school during his other classes.

      This was an impossible goal for my son. He became frustrated and angry. He was punished daily for crawling under the table. What they didn't understand is that he just wanted to draw something or play in music class. The more they said no, the more he acted out.

      This year he is mainstreamed with an aide. Amazing, not one note home, no complaints. He is even practicing in chorus.

    • HeatherH104 profile image
      Author

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      Thank you and yes it is very sad. I just got a message from my friend that her son is allowed to be in band "for now" until the principal of the school makes a decision. More teachers need educating on techniques in their discipline for teaching everyone.

      Synesthesia is interesting. There is a lot to learn about how the brain works.

      Thanks again for reading and your great comment. :)

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 3 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Very interesting hub, Heather. It's so sad to know that not all the kids have the same right to education!

      I never heard of synesthesia.... it shows that we can learn new things every day!

      Thank you for sharing, Heather! Voted up and interesting!

    • HeatherH104 profile image
      Author

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      Thank you techygran I'm glad you liked it. :)

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 3 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Beautiful hub!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      It could well be genetic, I don't know if any of my family ever had it apart from me and my brother. The funny thing is we thought it was so normal that we never talked about it! lol! I only realised what it was when I read it somewhere, and then I told my brother and he was amazed!

    • HeatherH104 profile image
      Author

      HeatherH104 3 years ago from USA

      Nell, that is fascinating that you and your brother are synesthetic! There is so much we don't know about the brain and genetics. I'm curious now about whether it is genetic.

      Thank you for the high praise and share. :)

      Heather

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Hi Heather, this is an amazing hub, and yes all autistic children should be encouraged not dismissed. I listened to all the video's and the boy on the piano was amazing. Strangely enough I am also synesthetic! Its not music so much with me but I do sometimes see colors with music. Its words that causes color with me, and even stranger, so is my brother! for example my name, nell is blue! lol! the music and color on the video was fascinating, I also have that piece of music on a cd! great hub, and voted up and shared! nell