Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tantrums During Piano Lessons...How to Make it Work

Throughout my experience with autistic piano students, I have had many lessons that consisted of one long and violent tantrum. This is usually where most piano teachers give up, especially those who don't have the training or experience to handle the tantrums correctly.

Piano lesson tantrums can be particularly frustrating when there is limited time and lessons are costly. The biggest mistake that parents and teachers can make is to give in to the tantrum just to calm the child down. Now, those who have been trained in ABA techniques understand that this only reinforces the tantrum behavior and will result in more tantrums down the road.
Here are some tips to prevent tantrums, redirect children when they happen during piano lessons and ensure that the behavior doesn't become common practice (which may lead the family and teacher to give up on piano lessons all together for the child).


1. Piano lessons should be scheduled at the same time every week and put on the student's visual calender so they can mentally prepare beforehand. Piano students with autism do much better when their lesson is strictly scheduled.

2. Choose a time in the day when the child is most alert but not restless for active play (like running around outside).

3. Make sure the student is not hungry or thirsty during the lesson. From my experience, this often results in the worst of tantrums, especially for non-verbal students.

4. Decide on a reward WITH the student. Perhaps they are not into M&M's at the moment and would rather be rewarded with 2 minutes of a fun DVD or hugs and tickles.

5. Use visual reward schedules and allow a few minutes of break time at ~10 minute intervals. Usually I have the student play 5-8 songs/activities and fill boxes with stickers until they reach their reward box.

Once a tantrum starts:

1. DON'T GIVE IN. Whatever you do, don't reward the student for the misbehavior. Instead try to first figure out what may be causing the tantrum. If there is something bothering them in the environment, try to remove that and redirect the student. If they WANT something, like food or reward...don't give them the item until they finish the task. Sometimes, tantrums are self-stimulatory, which basically means you can't really do anything for the student. However, you can't let the tantrum get its way.

2. Sometimes the student is seeking attention with the tantrum. Try your best to ignore the tantrum and not react. For example, if the student starts banging a door, don't yell or acknowledge what they are doing, but rather hold the door and look in another direction so that the student can't move the door. Parents are often trained by ABA therapists the proper procedure for this type of behavior, so follow their lead if you're a piano teacher that doesn't have experience with this type of behavior.

3. You may give the student a few minutes to calm down if you think that may help them, but don't end the lesson. After a few minutes, try to re-engage the student in an activity....it's best to try an activity they know how to do well and slowly ramp up the difficulty of the activity.

4. If you manage to get them back into piano lesson activity, praise them loudly and after a few tasks reward them with what they wanted as a reward.

There are obviously a lot more more things you can do. I encourage readers to comment and leave their own tips and techniques for dealing with tantrums during piano lessons.

If you're looking for tutors (academic, music or art) that have training and experience in working with students who have autism, check out Able Scholar.

Also, if you're looking for piano lessons in West LA, feel free to contact me or check out my local music website: Brentwood Piano

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Using Colors to Teach Music

How many of you have heard of synesthesia?

Well, it's a condition that affects some people with very interesting sensory issues (mostly all good). Here is a good explanation from Wikipedia.org:

"Synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be "farther away" than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise). Yet another recently identified type, visual motion → sound synesthesia, involves hearing sounds in response to visual motion and flicker. Over 60 types of synesthesia have been reported by people, but only a fraction have been evaluated by scientific research. Even within one type, synesthetic perceptions vary in intensity and people vary in awareness of their synesthetic perceptions. " (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synaesthesia

I have synaesthesia and I know that often people with autism and Asperger's have it also. It's pretty rare and most synethetes don't realize that they have this unique condition until they realize not every sees colors when they see letters, etc...

Personally, it has helped me a lot in life, especially with respect to memorization and learning things. It also enriched my life because when I hear music, I see incredible landscapes of moving shapes and colors. Basically, I see sound.

Although I'm not lucky enough to have the type of synesthesia that would give me perfect pitch (basically see a very specific color when a tone is played), I still use colors to help me learn new songs. So I decided to try this method on my young students to see if it could help them learn music. I'm hoping that even if my students aren't born with synesthesia, we could maybe help them develop an artificial form of the condition if we assign colors to notes consistently, especially when we're learning new songs.

Currently I'm developing worksheets and games toward that goal. If any of you are interested in trying this new method with your child or student, feel free to contact me!


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Autism Finally in the Media...

I was excited to see the following video on CNN about autism therapy:

I think that unless someone has had a person with autism in his or her life, it is very difficult to fully grasp what it is like for children (and adults) with autism. Each child is very different and, in fact, some kids may not have the stereotypical behaviors that people expect and thus their needs are not taken into account. This video expands on the current popular treatment for people with autism: Applied Behavioral Analysis. ABA therapy can help children with autism because it gives them many hours of one-on-one attention from trained behavior specialists who teach them how to help themselves (i.e. ask for something or point instead of tantruming, brushing their own teeth, making eye contact and holding a back and forth conversation with others, etc.) As a behavior specialist, I see the benefits of this type of therapy every day. The great thing is that it can be incorporated in all activities and by many people in their lives, given that they have proper training in how to apply ABA techniques. For example, I often customize piano lessons for my students that have autism or Aspergers using the same techniques from therapy sessions with my other cases. It works wonders when the lessons are customized to the child's needs rather than expecting the student to conform to traditional piano lessons. I can see how many piano (or other music) teachers may give up on a student who has a special need or may refuse to take them altogether because it is very difficult to progress without proper training in teaching children with autism and other special needs.

If you are a parent or teacher who is considering music lessons for a child with autism or Asperger's and would like some tips, please feel free to post your question in the comments section and I will be happy to answer. :)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Microscopic Progress is STILL Progress...

"Do not fear growing slowly, so long as you are not standing still."

I am so excited about one of my students with autism and her progress with piano lessons. Now a regular teacher who is used to "normal" students may look at the months of lessons with this student and would probably say to me one of two things: "Wow, you're a bad teacher." or "This doesn't seem to be going anywhere, why bother?"

Thank goodness I'm not such a teacher and having experience with students with autism, I can recognize small small changes in their behavior or ability that signal amazing progress to me and to the parents.

The achievement I am bragging on her behalf about is that, although she hasn't learned "notes" yet (only letters) nor really learned her first song well in a couple of months, this amazing (and very positive and intelligent) girl has made a big transition on a couple of songs. I can now ask her to look at the paper herself and press the letters she sees without me pointing at each individual letter. And she gets it 95% right most of the time! (Sometimes her finger lands on the wrong key or she skips a letter.) But to me this is a FANTASTIC step in the right direction. It shows me that she can focus long enough visually and coordinate her hands with her eyes correctly to get through a song like Mary Had a Little Lamb. This creates independence and will allow her to practice on her own, not relying on an adult to point the way.

So I just wanted to share this wonderful experience with anyone who may think of teaching piano to children with autism. It's a reminder that you have to take them as individuals who show progress in their own unique way and the best teachers are super-attuned to it when it does happen. The worst is when such a student is trying their hardest (and making microscopic progress) but the teacher gives up and moves on to students that are more teachable.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another Success with Music Therapy for an Autistic Child

Here is another great example of how music can help autistic children communicate and participate in the environment around them!

Tala and her daughter Sara in Dubai experienced an incredible gift from music lessons.  Sara was diagnosed with autism when she was very young and Tala stumbled upon music therapy as one of the greatest tools to help her daughter deal with the world around her.

Sara had been very sensitive to noises in her environment since she was a baby and once she got older, she wasn’t able to communicate her frustrations verbally.  As a result she would throw tantrums and hurt herself by throwing herself against walls.  After seeing a specialist, Tala finally realized that Sara was autistic and had sensory issues that are common among autistic children.  They started to work with various therapists that focused on the specific issues Sara was facing, but she hated it and progress was slow. 

Then Tala ran into a music teacher who introduced her to a relatively new area of therapy for autistic children—music therapy.  Up until then Tala had tried so many therapies and none had seemed to really help her daughter so she was willing to try anything. So they started having music lessons two times per week.

At first the little girl zoned out and didn’t pay attention during the sessions, but slowly she started to come around and show more interest in the different instruments her teacher would play for her.  After weeks of accustoming Sara to the sounds, the routine and the separation from her mother, Sara started picking up the instruments herself and even started singing!  Soon Sara couldn’t wait for her music lessons every week and would sing the songs she learned all day. 

Tala noticed that the music lessons helped her daughter stay calm and focus on people’s voices.  She didn’t seem so overwhelmed with the noises around her as she was learning to sort them out. Tala also noticed that her daughter was able to communicate better and be more affectionate, as well as participate actively in social environments such as school and even swim meets.

The best part was the since Tala herself could play instruments, she found a new way to communicate with her daughter. What a blessing indeed!

To read more about Tala and Sara, click here: http://www.gulfnews.com/Aquarius/YourLife/10263976.html

If you think that your autistic child may benefit from participating in piano lessons and activities, feel free to check out http://www.ypiano.com ! I am developing a new method to teach piano to autistic children and other children with special needs.  The new method does not use traditional lesson plans, but rather uses a hands-on approach to the piano that resembles floor playtime, something fun and easy to focus on. This is method is best for very young students and can be used with children under 5 years old who are not old enough for traditional piano teaching methods.