Helping Students With Aspergers

She was wound tight as a drum.

Wresting her violin out of the case, this high-school student threw herself into playing her piece, even before saying hello.

She crashed around the notes, her bow sawing against the strings. Her frustration increased, as she was not playing cleanly or with good tone. Her body, already full of tension, began to jerk and start, and her already tight hands clutched harder, like a hawk wired to clamp around prey.

I asked her to stop, but as soon as she did, a barrage of words came forth, analyzing what was wrong. The more we tried to talk about it, the worse it got, as she would not look me in the eye, and seemed not to be listening to me. She continued to interrupt with more bad playing, all the while getting more and more frustrated, convincing herself that what I said wasn’t right, and that nothing would fix her problems.

Is this just bad behavior?

Another student, a four-year old boy, seemed intent on doing everything else besides play his violin. He would not listen to direction, would not look me in the eye, and would not imitate my playing. He showed little interest in the sort of games and body movement exercises that work with every other student. He would fixate on things in the room, like how an object looked or how my tuner worked.

He showed clear intelligence and ability to play when he wanted to, but nothing I did or said seemed to stick. We made no progress for several lessons.

 It would have been easy to put both of these students' problem down to “bad behavior” or “lack of practice” but I knew that neither one of these was the full explanation.

Not Business As Usual

I suspected both of these students were on the high-functioning Asperger's spectrum.

While I am not an expert in Asperger's or in music therapy, I have observed and worked with a number of students demonstrating the characteristics of the Asperger's spectrum, and I want to share the things I learned to do to help. 

There are certain surprising ways to dissolve the (sometimes formidable) walls that Asperger's students put up.

We can ease them into being more musical, but the methods used are different than what we might use with other students. 

The first thing that I had to get over was that the techniques and tricks that I had thought were foolproof and universal, actually were not. I was surprised when something that I was confident would work either fell flat or completely backfired and produced an emotionally negative atmosphere in the lesson. 

Once I got over the hurdle of expecting these students to act a certain way, I was able to assess what they really needed and apply a different strategy.

What if you don't know for sure?

Many parents will inform you straight up front, that their child has Asperger's. But some will not, either because they don't wish to share this information or they have not been formally diagnosed. (Some parents resist the labeling that comes with this diagnosis, and that can have the adverse consequence of not receiving proper access to treatment.)

Sometimes with high-functioning Asperger's kids, they and their parents may not know they are on the spectrum. For those students, a confusing array of behaviors such as tantrums, OCD, and other problems mix in a confusing way with otherwise social, intelligent, mature behavior.

Empathy for their behavior is key here. You may not know for sure whether they have Asperger's, and you may not even be in the position to speak to the parents about that issue (I was not able to on a number of occasions, partly due to the fact that I was working in music school environments where they weren't set up to conference with parents). If you watch for the behavior signs, and remain open to adapting to the symptoms, you might be the one to help them achieve a sense of understanding and acceptance of who they are.

Some Rules of Thumb

I found that most of the time I needed to apply these rules of thumb:

  1. Less analysis, more playing. High functioning Asperger's students that I have worked with have a propensity to analyze analyze analyze. While this is an incredible strength in other areas, it tends to get them stuck in music. 
  2. Don’t talk, argue, or explain.  Find a way to play together, something the student will accept, at their level, for as much of the lesson as possible. 
  3. The body must relax to play, and playing makes the body relax. Breathing exercises may be necessary to break the initial tension cycle, if that is getting in the way. (Click here to see Practice Tip on Breathing.)
  4. Routine is essential. We need to go over what to do immediately after opening the case and getting out the violin - and it is not crashing into the piece! There needs to be a warmup routine that involves breathing, slow playing, easy playing, and simple notes.
  5. Let go of picky technical fixes (bend your pinky, don’t do that with your wrist, etc.) These tend to get into the world of verbal explanation, and we need to minimize that.
  6. For young children, I found that a number focus predominates. Numbers help them to play rather than talk or wander off mentally. (Numbered finger charts are available to download at http://edwardsviolinstudio.com/downloads/)
  7. Get them in the Right Brain. Once we get them playing, the music seems to take over. It captures them. I believe this is a hemispheric access shift. The Right Brain is non-verbal, connected to the body, and non-analytical. It seems that Asperger's spectrum students become “trapped” in a sense, in an over-active Left Brain. The reason music therapy helps is that it activates the Right Brain and, for a time, closes down the over-hyper, verbally argumentative, and non-musical Left Brain.

Since the music captures them bodily, many technical fixes seem to take care of themselves.

That’s why it is OK to let go of picky technicalities, things that help to explain to other students but don’t seem to help with those on the spectrum. (A lesson here even for the mainstream student: sometimes we need to let the music guide our bodies, rather than the other way around.)

I am a very hands-on teacher. I tend use touch with my students to help establish body awareness. With some Asperger's students this isn't possible, since their sensitivity and comfort level may dictate keeping a respectful distance.  (I didn't put this in the rules of thumb, because it hasn't been true consistently for the Asperger's students I have taught. Some were fine with touch, others were not.)

If touch is not possible, let the music do the touching. Again, the music will capture their body in a way you cannot with your words or your touching. And over time, as their comfort level increases, you may be able to ease in to gentle manual adjustment. You may also want to point them to video and audio resources to help them self-teach. (For example, my video on how to have a more flexible wrist: https://youtu.be/iS-Pze-V63o)

As she breathed with me, my tense high-school student relaxed.

I asked her to listen to me just long enough to ask her to slow down and play some long smooth bows. Then we went back to her piece and played it together, breathing at the phrases. In the next lesson we breathed again moving our arms up and down, then played together again. In the next lesson we breathed and practiced Jellyfish fingers (see Practice Tip #14). The focus on breathing kept her out of her “wordy” Left Brain and empowered her holistic, body-aware Right Brain.

How Many Times Can You...?

As I began to realize that numbers were the name of the game for the four-year-old, I started asking him to count everything.

I would ask him to count how many times I moved my bow. Then I would ask if he could do the same number. I found I could get him to do almost anything if I prefaced it with “How many times can you….” I asked him to count notes, count to 10 while holding his violin up, count how many times he could tap his fingers on the tapes, and so on.

As an experiment, I made a numbered finger chart of Lightly Row for him, and he learned it in the space of a single lesson. We began to progress quickly through the next pieces, using finger charts. Hiccups and technical quirks seemed to fix themselves, almost by magic.

This student's ability with numbers made the complexity of a string instrument become a source of interest and stimulation rather than a stumbling block.

Further Resources

Asperger's students are wonderful, engaging, intelligent, and capable kids. Playing music seems to help tap their intelligence, just in a different way. Every student has a unique range of learning styles and behaviors, so perhaps our Asperger's students are really giving us a gift, in helping us to adapt better.

I encourage anyone dealing with Asperger's spectrum or autism to pursue more resources and become familiar with the medical and therapeutic avenues available. My recommendations are fairly specific to playing an instrument: my aim here is not to diagnose or treat the condition, but simply to share what has worked for me as a violin teacher.

You may find the following resources helpful:

http://www.musictherapy.org/research/musictherapy/

http://www.connollymusic.com/stringovation/can-playing-a-musical-instrument-help-my-autistic-child

http://www.education.com/question/aspergers-music-aptitude-finding-children-interest/

Share your experience

If you have an Asperger's spectrum student or your own child, please consider comments to this post to add suggestions to the discussion. We can all benefit from hearing more about how to adapt to this unique and wonderful learning style.