Music & Students with Special Needs (Special Learners in Music) Special Learners in Music
Bartlett - Established 1884 in New York City



Autism, a lifelong neurological disorder, has been called “the ultimate learning disabililty” because of its impact on a person’s ability to communicate, to relate with others, and to reason. Autism is not the result of environmental or psychological factors and is not an emotional or mental disorder. Autism can take very different forms and may range from mild to severe. In the most severe form, the student with autism exhibits significant social, cognitive, and language deficiencies.

Characteristics of students with autism

Social differences: Students with autism typically have difficulty relating to others. They may have poor eye contact and may stare into space, seemingly unaware of those around her.

  • Many student with autism also have mental retardation, however, some students with autism have average to above average intelligence.
  • Some students will have a high degree of inattention and a high activity level, however, these students can also be passive and underactive.
  • These students may interrupt conversations because they are not aware that someone else is still speaking.
  • These students may misunderstand intent in conversations because they sometimes have difficulty interpreting facial expressions, motivation, and gestures.

Language Differences: Students with autism often have delays in their ability to express and understand language.

  • These students may have speech that is stilted, concrete, and accompanied by a flat tone and little body language.
  • Some students with autism speak very softly, while others speak very loudly.
  • Some students with autism exhibit echolalia (repeating what others say without necessarily understanding the meaning).
  • It is difficult for some students with autism to initiate conversations.
  • Sarcasm, jokes, idiomatic expressions, and metaphors are difficult for some students with autism to understand.

Unusual repetitive behaviors: Students with autism may exhibit repetitive, random behaviors such as spinning, rocking, arm flapping, or finger flicking. They may become upset if they are prevented from engaging in these acts.

  • Students with autism may display self-injurious behaviors such as headbanging or hand biting.
  • Some students may be fascinated by objects that move or spin.

Resistance to change: Students with autism often become uncomfortable when their routine is altered (clothing, foods, activities).

  • These students may become upset if the classroom set-up is altered.
  • Some students with autism may react negatively to a change in lesson plans or a difference in instruction.

Extreme reactions to sensory information: Students with autism may be very sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, odors, or textures.

  • It may be difficult for students with autism to be touched by other students.
  • Music or other sounds may upset the student with autism. Reactions may include hands over the ears, screaming or becoming emotionally upset, withdrawing or hiding.
  • Students with autism may display “savant” skills. These may include a photographic memory, the ability to play a melody after hearing it only once or perfect pitch.
  • These students may have difficulty determining cause and effect.
  • Some students with autism exhibit some but not all behaviors. These students are sometimes referred to as having a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). PDD is a lifelong disorder affecting the student’s communication and interpersonal skills. Autism is the most prevelant form of PDD.
  • Asperger syndrome is another PDD. Students with Asperger syndrome are high-functioning, however, they share some characteristics of students with Autism: interpersonal difficulties, concrete thinking, resistance to change, and obsession with one or two topics.
  • Students with autism are sometimes referred to as “neurologically impaired” or “emotionally disturbed”.

Teaching strategies for students with autism

  • Provide structure and consistency in the classroom. Students with autism do well in a highly structured environment with predictable routines, consistent language, and a familiar classroom setting.
  • Speak simply and directly. Provide alternatives when trying to change a behavior. Statements rather than questions will be understood. Students with autism often have difficulty processing information.
  • Avoid abstract language and ideas (“let’s wrap up our group time”, or “sing with a darker tone”). These students may understand concepts easier if they are reinforced physically, or visually.
  • Use visual aids to communicate. Many students with autism are visual learners. They think in pictures rather than text. Auditory processing can be difficult for students with autism.
  • Encourage students with autism to verbalize their thoughts and ideas and offer positive reinforcement for appropriate spoken language.
  • Use alternative methods of communication with students who are nonverbal. Students with autism may use a communication board, or a computer with voice-output capability to communicate. The student may be able to sing phrases she is unable to speak.
  • Prepare the student before changing the classroom routine or set-up. Remind the student before a change will occur in the classroom. If possible, give the student an opportunity to explore the classroom before the entire class or ensemble is present. If a fire alarm or other unusual activity is going to take place, it is important that an adult is near the student or that the student is forewarned (if possible). A comfort object or person can also help in these situations.
  • Provide environmental protection. A wide array of sounds can upset a student with autism. Examples of sounds include: school bell, buzzer in the gymnasium, fire alarm, flourescent lighting, chairs scraping on the floor, messages on the public address system. Putting a slit in tennis balls on the bottom of chair legs can lesson the scraping noise. The bell can be muffled by putting tissue or paper towels in or near it. Carpeting in a classroom helps reduce a variety of potentially distressing sounds. Headphones can help a student during those unavoidable times when sounds in the classroom can become
  • Help organize the student. You may give the student a 3x5 card taped to her desk, stand, or chair. Another option is to give the student a schedule (written or pictorial) to help prepare for activities.
  • Coach the student to handle social situations. These students may need to learn skills to communicate with other students and adults.
  • Find opportunities for interaction with non-disabled peers.

Ideas for working with students with Autism

  • Parallel music activities work well to achieve the objectives of several students at one time.
  • Music games like passing a ball back and forth to music or playing sticks and cymbals with another person might be used to foster interaction.
  • Eye contact can be encouraged with imitative clapping games near the eyes or with activities which focus attention on an instrument played near the face.
  • Preferred music may be used contingently for a wide variety of cooperative social behaviors like sitting in a chair or staying with a group of other children in a circle.
  • Special learners can improve the development and remediation of speech through music activities.
    • The severe deficit in communication observed among autistic children includes expressive speech which may be nonexistent or impersonal.
    • Speech can range from complete mutism to grunts, cries, explosive shrieks, guttural sounds, and humming.
    • There may be musically intoned vocalizations with some consonant-vowel combinations, a sophisticated babbling interspersed with vaguely recognizable word-like sounds, or a seemingly foreign sounding jargon.
    • Higher level autistic speech may involve echolalia, delayed echolalia or pronominal reversal, while some children may progress to appropriate phrases, sentences, and longer sentences with non expressive or monotonic speech.
  • Some children with Autism show unusual sensitivities to music. Some have perfect pitch, while many have been noted to play instruments with exceptional musicality.
  • Some children have unusual sensitivities only to certain sounds. One boy, after playing a xylophone bar, would spontaneously sing up the harmonic series from the fundamental pitch. Through careful structuring, syllable sounds were paired with his singing of the harmonics and the boy began incorporating consonant-vowel sounds into his vocal play. Soon simple 2-3 note tunes were played on the xylophone by the therapist who modeled more complex verbalizations, and the child gradually began imitating them.
  • Since children with autism sometimes sing when they may not speak, teachers can work systematically on speech through vocal music activities.

In the music classroom, songs with simple words, repetitive phrases, and even repetitive nonsense syllables can assist the language of a child with autism. Meaningful word phrases and songs presented with visual and tactile cues can facilitate this process. One six-year old child with echolalia was taught speech by having the teacher sing simple question/answer phrases set to a familiar melody with full rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment. The child held the objects while singing:

Do you eat an apple? Yes, yes.
Do you eat an apple? Yes, yes.
Do you eat an apple? Yes, yes.
Yes, yes, yes.


Do you eat a pencil? No, no.
Do you eat a pencil? No, no.
Do you eat a pencil? No, no.
No, no, no.

Another child with autism learned noun and action verb phrases. A large doll was manipulated by the therapist/teacher and a song presented:

This is a doll.
This is a doll.
The doll is jumping.
The doll is jumping.
This is a doll.
This is a doll.

Later, words were substituted for walking, sitting, sleeping, etc. In these songs, the bold words were faded out gradually by the teacher. Since each phrase was repeated, the child could use his echolalic imitation to respond accurately. When the music was eliminated completely, the child was able to verbalize the entire sentence in response to the questions, "What is this?" and "What is the doll doing?"

Other children with autism have learned entire meaningful responses when both questions and answers were incorporated into a song. The following phrases were sung with one child to the approximate tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and words were faded out gradually in backward progression. While attention to environmental sounds was the primary focus for this child, the song structure assisted her in responding in a full, grammatically correct sentence:

Listen, listen, what do you hear? (sound played on tape)
I hear an ambulance.

(I hear a baby cry.)
(I hear my mother calling, etc.)

  • Children with autism have also made enormous strides in eliminating their monotonic speech by singing songs composed to match the rhythm, stress, flow and inflection of the sentence followed by a gradual fading of the musical cues. Teachers can assist the child in remembering these prosodic features of speech by prompting the child with the song.
  • Because the repertoire of elementary songs is generally repetitive in nature, students with autism can work on verbal communication skills as they learn the songs in class. Even in upper elementary classroom and early choral music, repetition of simple phrases is common. While the words in this repertoire may not seem critical for the autistic children to learn, simply increasing the capacity to put words together is a vitally important beginning.
  • In the general music classroom, almost all singing experiences are invaluable to students with autism when songs are presented slowly, clearly, and with careful focusing of the child's attention to the ongoing activity.
  • When working with anyone, whether on the autistic spectrum or not, the first step is to get this person to orient to you. They first need to be made aware of your existence. This means getting as close to this person as needed for them to notice you are there. This area where the child notices you is considered as the Zone of Intention. This Zone of Intention is often quite small in children with autism. Once the child is oriented to you, the task is to engage that child. Only when the child is engaged is there a possibility of working in a meaningful way.
  • The more severe the autism, the closer to his/her body one must work in order for the child to react in an intentional manner. During a therapeutic session the zone may begin close to the child's body but may vary -- usually getting larger as the child becomes better related to the teacher.
  • With children who are barely verbal, 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" (Lewin, 1935) occur at the cadences during the last few notes before the final note of the music.
  • In small groups, musical instruments and interactive songs can address turn-taking, cooperative interaction, and other social skills including learning and role playing "social stories." Individualized tapes are often made for additional home practice of skills.

Temper Tantrum Report

Name of Student _____________ Date of Report ________________
Date of Tantrum _____________ Time of Tantrum ______________

A.B.C. Functional Behavior Analysis

Part I. Possible Reasons for the Tantrum (Antecedents)

1. Environmental : Change of Physical Environment (new room, new place)
Change of People in the Physical Environment

Please State Details (which people, how many, etc.)

________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

2. Possible Sensory Triggers: Sounds Taste Smell Touch Visual Temperature

Please State Details:

________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

3. Other Factors to Consider as Possible Causes (did any of these changes occur?)

Insistence on Sameness of Schedules and Routines
Lack of Social Awareness - Does not pick up on Social Cues
Unable to Communicate Illness or Injury
Frustration at a Task or Following a Rule

Please State Details:

________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

4. This Tantrum occurred “out of the blue” with no clearly identifiable rhyme or reason.

Please State Details:

________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________ ________________________________________________________________________

Part II . State the Behavior

1. Approximate DURATION of Tantrum (in minutes)

0 .... 5 ....10 ....15 .... 20 .... 25 .... 30 .... 35 ....40 .... 45 .... 50 .... 55 .... 60 +

2. Exact Behavior of the Tantrum (circle all which apply)

Pouting Sulking ....“Go Limp”.... Crying/Sobbing....Clinging to Objects

Other (please state) _____________________________________________________

Yelling.... Shouting.... Screaming.... Cursing.... Hair Pulling

....Hitting.... Biting.... Kicking Throwing Objects (large? small?)

Other (please state) _______________________________________________________

Body Position: Laid in the Floor.... In Chair/At Desk.... Ran Around the Room.... Under a table or desk.... Ran Toward a Person.... Stood in Middle of Room

Other:(please state)__________________________________________________

3. Degree of SEVERITY of the Behaviors

Degree of “Viciousness” of Aggressive Behaviors

1.... 2.... 3.... 4.... 5.... 6.... 7.... 8.... 9.... 10
Did not Leave a mark-- Bruised Skin -- Drew Blood

Hair Pulling Degree of “Viciousness”

1.... 2.... 3.... 4.... 5.... 6.... 7.... 8.... 9.... 10
Touched Hair -- Tugged Hair -- Ripped Hair from Scalp

NO physical confrontation to report.

Part III. Consequences

Now this part does not mean what punishment did the student receive for this “acting out” behavior. Consequences here just mean what did the adult do immediately following the temper tantrum?

For example: ignored the tantrum, removed the student to a renewal area, used a restraining hold such as a basket hold, etc.

Implementation of “Planned Ignoring” Strategy to Extinguish Inappropriate/Undesirable Behaviors

  1. Sometimes a person with autism demonstrates inappropriate behaviors because of sensory difficulties, and at other times it is due to poor communication skills.
  2. In certain instances when a functional behavior analysis has been conducted over a period of time ( a week or longer), a pattern of inappropriate social interactions may be revealed. We must never forget that kids with autism also demonstrate deficits in the area of social interactions.
  3. This program was developed for one particular student in one particular setting. It works for him. Even though his behaviors are inappropriate, he does have a desire to interact with other people. This strategy will not work with every student in every situation.
  4. As with any other behavior changing program, it will take three weeks or so before you really start seeing any improvements in behavior.

Inappropriate/Undesirable Behaviors for average 9 year old male:

  • Sit and does nothing as refusal “turns to jello”
  • Throws or mouths small objects such as blocks or puzzle pieces
  • Closes eyes tightly to not look at adult or activity
  • Stands up and walks in a circle around the room
  • Grabs at tangible rewards without performing task
  • Turns over large objects (boxes, baskets, desk drawers) as he walks past them
  • Stands in chair seat
  • Stands on Table Top
  • Bangs walls loudly with hands, fists
  • Grabs towel bar in bathroom and pulls on it
  • Jerks arm and lunges - “push me - pull you”
  • Jumps on “bouncy” furniture - couch, chair, bed
  • Walks along back of furniture like a tightrope acrobat
  • Walks along porch railing like a tightrope acrobat
  • Runs around room and does all of the above in “fast motion”
  • Sits/lays on ground or floor and refuses to budge
  • Removes clothing - pulls pants down to ankles
  • Runs away - escape type behavior
  • Climbs on very high places such as top of swingset
  • Throws heavy objects

Becomes Physically aggressive -

  • Stand up on furniture and “pounce” on your head or back
  • Pulls your hair and bites your scalp
  • Climb on your back, neck, shoulders
  • Choke you from behind
  • Step/stomp on you with his shoes

Self-Injurious behaviors -

  • Slaps face, cheeks
  • Pulls heavy furniture on himself
  • Pica - may eat something poisonous
  • Throws himself down stairs

Appropriate/ Replacement Behaviors for average 9 year old male

Rest and Recreation at Home

Play indoors safely/appropriately -

  • Watch T.V. - Barney, Lion King, and other preferred videos
  • Sit with bottom in full contact of chair
  • Play table top activities such as puzzles and simple turn-taking games
  • Jump only on trampoline
  • Rest, calm self down when agitated “renewal” space

Play in play yard safely/appropriately -

  • Swing on swing set
  • Climb on logs, balance beam
  • Play with Bouncing Ball
  • Play with Toy Cars
  • Play T-Ball with friend
  • Ride in Wagon

Learn Communication & Flexibility

  • Use appropriate methods to communicate wants, needs, and desires (ASL, picture symbol, gesture, etc.)
  • Use Social Stories to explain and clarify expectations
  • Keep everything very consistent among service providers


University Students With Autism And Asperger's Syndrome

Autism Society of America

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Website

Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support

PBS Online: Growing Up Different - videos

Autism Everyday - YouTube video | Autism Speaks website

Autism Research Institute: Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC)
Internet Scoring Program

National Institutes of Health - Child Health & Human Development: publications

Center for Disease Control (CDC) - FAQ's about autism

Copyright 2005 Project Seven Development