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Autism and Music Education 1

Autism and Music Education

Allison Gerber

MUED 838 Inclusive Music Education

Autism and Music Education 2


Music is intended to be shared, experienced and enjoyed by all. With the rise of autism diagnoses

in America, music teachers need to seek and implement ways to be more accommodating and open to

students with autism. They need to look at autism and other disabilities to determine how they can

provide a comprehensive and balanced music education for all students.

Definition of Incidence

Statistics from 1999 showed that the number of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum were

estimated at 20 per every 10,000 (Lord, 2001). The diagnosis of autism in particular was said to be

present in 7.5 per every 10,000 children. Today the number of children on the autism spectrum has

significantly increased to 1 per 150 children (autismaction.org). This figure is three times the estimate

from studies in 1999. This rise could be due to the fact that intervention occurs earlier and diagnoses are

being handed down more readily. Approximately 2/3 of the children on the autism spectrum also have a

form of mental retardation. As of 2001, nearly 400,000 people in the United States alone had some form

of autism, making it the third most common developmental disability (Sobol, 2001). Interestingly, autism

occurs three times more commonly in boys than in girls.


Autism is caused by a neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain. It is not

connected to ethnicity, economic status, or familial intelligence, but autism does tend to run in families.

The lack of neurological development in a child with autism commonly leads to processing problems in

social settings, difficulties in communication, and shortcomings in reasoning capabilities. This inability

to process may be due to certain differences in a person's neurological makeup. Recent scientific studies

on the brains of those with autism have shown some similarities between the test subjects. In children

and adults with autism the caudate nucleus in the brain is enlarged, particularly on the right side (Haas,

2009). Furthermore, the obsessive-compulsive behavior seen in autism is associated with abnormal levels

of metabolites in the frontal lobe. The reason for these neurological differences is unknown. There is no
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cure for autism, but the disability can be managed in several ways.


Autism is a developmental disability identified on the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The

other disabilities included in the autism spectrum are Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental

disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder.

Autism is usually detected by the age of three. Infants and toddlers might have early signs of autism if

they avoid eye contact, have trouble learning and responding to their name, and show deficits in their

attention to play, in nonverbal communication and in language development (Lord, 2001). Those with

autism have struggles with understanding how to interact socially and how to care for themselves and

those around them. Repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, like rocking back and forth, are

common. Individuals with autism do not react well to changes in their environment or daily routines and

they can have unusual responses to sensory experiences. Autistic students can exhibit oppositional or

aggressive behavior, seizures, low intellectual or very high intellectual development, poor social skills,

and impaired cognitive functioning and language (Sobol, 2001). Some children with autism also have

physical disabilities ranging from muscle stiffness or poor coordination to delay in motor development.

Because there is such variance in the behavior of autistic children, experts must consider each

individual and the possible categories of disability they might fit into when diagnosing. “As one expert

advises, 'If you've met one child with autism, you've met one child with autism” (autismaction.org). To

properly diagnosis autism requires a medical diagnosis and educational verification. The doctors and staff

need to look at the child's medical, behavioral, and communication status as well as their history and

developmental progress. If the child is indeed eligible for special education they will have access to

many services, and their educators will draft an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for them.

Educational Needs and Methods

A child who is diagnosed with autism is eligible for special education services. An educational

assessment should be conducted every 1-2 years after the initial assessment. The IEP is composed with
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the collaboration of educators, parents, and doctors to determine desired outcomes and to explain the

student's abilities and needs. Schools should make short and long term goals on the IEP. Some autistic

children may need to be in school year-round to continue building their skills. Education should be

focused on “functional spontaneous communication, social instruction delivered throughout the day in

various settings, cognitive development and play skills, and proactive approaches to behavior problems,”

(Lord, 2001, p. 6). Children with autism may be taught individually, in group settings, or both. They

should be incorporated into an inclusive setting as much as possible so they can develop social skills and

behavior amongst their peers. The teacher can foster this kind of inclusive setting by providing several

opportunities for response. Other skills that should be integrated when possible in the general classroom

are communication, engagement, play, cognitive, academic, self-help, behavioral challenges, and motor

skills (Lord, 2001). The classroom should be a distraction-free environment so the students with autism

can focus. In general, teachers should “provide a stable, organized backdrop for learning new things that

supports children's diverse learning needs,” (McGrath, 2007, p. 40).

Educators and parents should evaluate problem behaviors from the adult and child's perspective.

A child might consider their actions to be the result of misunderstanding directions or confusion about

consequences, while an educator sees the behavior as unruly, a disruption of the classroom or forms of

aggression. It is important as the adult to consider the thoughts and feelings of the autistic child before

making negative assumptions about their desire to learn and participate in school.

Instructional Techniques

There are several instructional techniques recommended for educating children with autism. One

commonly used communication technique is the use of visual schedules where the child is able to see and

understand the progression of an activity. The visual schedule promotes independence, self-management,

and task completion. To help with activity transitions teachers can create consistent “between-task”

schedules. Visual aids in general are very helpful for the autistic child. Teachers should be sure to include

visual displays of assignments or class rules where an autistic child can see them and be reminded of
Autism and Music Education 5

them. For example, Elise Sobol (2001) displays three rules in her music classroom. 1. Sit in the

designated seat. 2. Ask before you touch. 3. Try your best (p. 103). Sobol also recommends using the

colors of a stop light to manage classroom behavior. Red light means “Stop, calm down and think before

you act.” A yellow light means “Caution. Say the problem and how you feel. Set a positive goal. Think of

lots of solutions. Think ahead to the consequences.” A green light means “Go ahead and try the best

plan.” Writing out a calendar of the assignments allows the student to keep track of what is completed

and what is coming in the material. Another helpful item is a word bank or word wall. A student can

access the word bank or word wall in the classroom to look up words or explanations of an in-class

assignment without requiring the immediate aid of the instructor.

When giving directions, teachers need to give simple, step by step explanations, and they should

carefully check a student's understanding of material or instructions. When asking students to interact in

class, the instructor must be patient and allow time for a response. Teachers should plan on 15-20 minute

activities in the classroom. A predicted and regular schedule is best. The student should be alerted ahead

of time of any significant schedule changes. It is also helpful for the assignments to be in a familiar


Two types of social interaction should be encouraged at school: child-child and adult-child. The

autistic child needs to learn how to respond and how to initiate communication with adults. Peers

initiating interaction can be extremely helpful in the classroom. Peers can be trained to give others praise,

share, or help. When peers are prompted to use these strategies with the reinforcement of adults, children

with autism usually respond well and feel comfortable with increased interaction.

Communication skills can be developed in several ways. One is to train the child to replace

misbehavior with appropriate communication. In this, the child learns to respond to various situations

without resorting to tantrums or noncooperation. Total communication is the combination of sign

language and verbal speech. It typically results in much faster and more complete vocabulary

comprehension. Teachers can help students anticipate good reactions through the use of social stories or
Autism and Music Education 6

practice scripts. Visual or verbal cues can be planned with the student so they can be made aware of

when they need to change their behavior.

Assistive Devices

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices have been reported to help those

with autism communicate appropriately. Children can be taught to use the devices in situations where

they might otherwise employ negative behaviors. Picture systems are low technology AAC tools that are

cost effective for the classroom and simple to implement. The Picture Exchange Communication System

(PECS) helps the student to initiate communication by approaching their communication partner and

exchanging a symbol. Another portable AAC device is the voice output communication aid (VOCA). It

produces digitalized speech and can be used for short and long pieces of communication. Several studies

conducted in the late 1980s support the following conclusions about AAC devices:

1. The use of AAC systems in addition to language instruction does not delay the acquisition of


2. There is evidence that sign language enhances the use of speech for some children.

3. There is no evidence that sign language interferes with speech development.

4. Children with good verbal imitation skills demonstrate better speech production than those with

poor verbal imitation skills, with or without AAC.

5. Children with poor imitation skills are the best candidate for an AAC system, such as sign

language, because they are likely to make poor progress in speech acquisition without AAC.

(Lord, 2001, p. 58)

Assistive technology could be any device using computer instruction, technology adaptations, or AAC

that help a child or adult with functional capabilities. Computer-assisted instruction is sometimes helpful

to motivate students and often results in less deviant behaviors. One helpful software program is called

Boardmaker. A teacher can use the software to create visual language tools. Picture-It, Pix-Writer, and

Writing with Symbols 2000 also create pictures that a child can combine to make social stories.
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Services Available

There are lots of services available to families that have children with autism. Parental

involvement and support at home will be necessary for the student to succeed. Parents should learn as

much as possible about their child's condition and how they can educate in the home. Schools should

provide information about the particular disorder and meet with the parents to devise an education

approach and develop goals for the student. Parents also need to find a good daycare provider that

understands the condition, needs and interests of the child. Intervention services for children with autism

should be implemented as soon as possible.

Several types of therapy are available to for students with autism. To learn about the providers of

each type of therapy in Nebraska, visit www.autismaction.org and click on the link in the menu titled

“Resource Center.” One of the therapies available is applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. It is a

teaching program where individuals are closely observed to see what skills they need to improve on.

Each needed skill is broken into smaller steps. ABA therapy requires continual documentation of the

student's experiences and progress. Behavior therapy focuses on the improvement of socially significant

behaviors by using certain psychological principles. Occupation therapy takes place when a therapist

evaluates a child's social skills and developmental abilities to see if they respond appropriately to sensory

input. Feeding therapy is necessary if a child with autism does not each age-appropriate food, gags, only

eats certain types of food, or has poor mealtime behaviors. This problem can be approached from the

home, in a group setting, or in a day program. The help of doctors, speech pathologists, occupational

therapists, or psychologists may be needed to rehabilitate the child to food. Quite often, children with

autism will need social skills therapy. Social skills are needed to help learn how to interpret “non-verbal

body language, tone of voice and other social cues during daily interactions” (autismaction.org). Speech

therapists working with autistic children have three main goals. To help children learn how to interpret

non-verbal communication, how to use speech pragmatics, and to develop their understanding of concept

skills. Those on the autism spectrum might also be taking medication to adjust their behavior. The
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medication is intended to decrease hyperactivity, anxiety, compulsiveness, aggression and self-injury.

Music can also be a useful form of therapy for autistic individuals. Therapeutic Listening® is a

“sensory-based auditory intervention that utilizes organized sound patterns in music to impact all levels of

the nervous system” (autismaction.org). It is said to positively impact sensory modulation, attention,

behavior, postural organization and speech and language difficulties. There are currently six centers in the

state of Nebraska that offer this type of therapy.


Unfortunately, many of those who are autistic struggle to find employment later in life. Adult

developmental disabilities services should be contacted when a child is 14 years or older to determine

eligibility for the services. Resources are also available through the community and the government.

Adult disability services can facilitate with the transition from school to adult life. Day and vocational

services seek to find employment and sometimes help with training in the job skills. Adults with autism

can and do attend vocational workshops and activity centers. The autistic person might need extra

support throughout their career, which should be evaluated by the job seeker, employer, and

representatives from the services.

Music Use for Children with Autism

Music has had a history of exclusive and limited programs. That philosophy must change to

welcome students with disabilities. The arts should be available to all students, not just the 15% that go

on to become performers of music later in life (Ackerman 2007). Teachers need to think about how to

enhance a person's capacity for musical thinking. A multifaceted technique is recommended in the music

classroom to ensure successful inclusion and participation of students with disabilities. Music educators

should adjust their approach so that an autistic child is involved in the classroom to the fullest extent

possible. This can be accomplished through modification of the instruments to make them playable. The

music can also be arranged to fit the abilities of the student. The music teacher should strive to meet the

needs for accommodation outlined in a student's IEP. If the applicable accommodations cannot be met a
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music teacher should contact the music department chair or special education chair for suggestions about

how to fully include the student. Music instructors that have students with special needs should expect to

fill the roles of a performer, composer and arranger.

It is important to train the student to be an active listener. When introducing a piece, perhaps

suggest one or two things to focus on. When the student engages in active listening they actually increase

their ability to focus and concentrate. The Listening Program® (TLP) is a music-based method that trains

the auditory system “to process sounds for improved listening, learning, attention, and communication.”

It can also provide more “advanced auditory training for the ear and brain through systematic delivery of

psychoacoustically modified music” (Haas, 2009). This could be extremely helpful for students with

autism because of the affected areas of improvement like attention, concentration, social skills, reading,

sensory processing, and self-regulation, to name a few. Parents specifically noted that after starting the

program they noticed positive changes in their child's tolerance of noise and improved social interactions.

(Haas, 2009, p. 328).

It is important for the teacher to keep students interested and encourage them to grow and learn.

One way to encourage growth is to provide opportunities for improvisation and composition. Music

software is a convenient way to allow all students the chance to be creative with their compositions.

Students' interests can be maintained by selecting literature for choir, band or orchestra that encourages

self-esteem and competence. This can be accomplished through the selection of diverse music that

celebrates lots of cultures and who we are as individuals.


As mentioned previously, music teachers should seek help from the music department chair

and/or special education staff when generating strategies of accommodation for the autistic student.

Teachers should feel free to employ the assistance of peers or paraprofessionals during music instruction.

Interpreters are especially helpful for students who use sign language. For specifics about the condition

and learning needs of the student, therapy providers can be contacted and questioned. Parents should also
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be aware of what the student is working on in the music classroom so they can reinforce the concepts and

goals in the home.

Unique Contributions of Music

The music classroom is a unique opportunity to create an environment that is accepting,

empathetic, and inclusionary. “The arts...are humanity's mechanism for exploring, understanding, and

making cognitively available knowings that are unavailable except through artistic actions that create

aesthetic meanings” (Ackerman 1997). In other words, the arts have unique meaning content. Music can

be very useful for sensorimotor training. Sensorimotor sequencing is learned through the use of rhythm

exercises starting at a slow tempo and gradually increasing. Learning how to read music also reinforces

literary skills. In Music for the Exceptional Child, Richard Graham (1975) argues that learning music

from an early age helps develop a healthy concept of self. Graham writes, “Invariably, with developing

musical abilities comes an ever increasing awareness of those parts of the body directly involved in

music-making, and later the entire body...In the course of developing an accurate image of his own and

others' bodies, the child learns to interpret the meanings of his musical encounters with others.” Through

these experiences and the responses of the music educator the child is able to develop a healthy concept

of self, enabling them to act appropriately and adjust well to their environment.

Those with autism may actually prefer musical over verbal stimuli (Haas, 2009). This further

supports the idea that music based interventions can be very helpful for those with an ASD. The US

National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has encouraged scientists to continue research of autism

with specific goals in mind. Their purpose statement is this: “Brain-based music research should seek to

use the powerful unique human sensory experience of music to engage people with autism to decrease its

impairing features so that they can become higher functioning individuals and members of society”

(Haas, 2009, p. 161-2).

When autistic students create music they are tapping into all areas of their brain, because music

actively uses the whole brain. The words are processed by the left brain, the melody is processed by the
Autism and Music Education 11

right brain, and the limbic system engages the emotional center. Elise Sobol (2001, p. 109) describes this

another way saying, “Dealing with cognitive and affective functions, music provides language for

communication and development of self-expression.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of music for the autistic student is that it gives them the opportunity

to explore their hidden talents. Many children with autism have perfect pitch and learn difficult pieces of

music by rote and repetition. Sobol (2001) beautifully summarizes how music affects the student when

she writes, “Music education can profoundly affect the mental health and welfare of the students by

teaching about peace, harmony, beauty, calm, silence, love, and laughter” ( p. 126).


In the music classroom, the participation of special learners benefits everyone involved. Music

educators can learn how to fully embrace the inclusive classroom by making use of the vast amount of

resources available to them. Each student with autism that enters the classroom needs to be treated with

special care and dignity. Everyone can participate in music when they are given the opportunity and the

tools they need to succeed.

Autism and Music Education 12


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Inclusion. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers.

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Graham, Richard M.. (1975). Music for the Exceptional Child. Reston, VA: Music Educators National

Conference. j

Haas, Roland, & Brandes, Vera. (2009). Music that works: Contributions of biology, neurophysiology,

psychology, sociology, medicine, and musicology. Vienna, Austria: Springer-Verlag/Wien.

Lord, Catherine, et al. (2001). Educating Children with Autism. Washington, D.C.: National Academy


McGrath, Constance. (2007). The Inclusion-Classroom Problem Solver: Structures and Supports to Serve

All Learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sobol, Elise S.. (2001). An Attitude and Approach for Teaching Music to Special Learners. Raleigh, NC:

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Wehman, Paul, Smith, Marcia Datlow, & Schall, Carol. (2009). Autism and the Transition to Adulthood:

Success Beyond the Classroom. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.