Music and the Autistic Child: Making the Connection

by Rita Whitaker-Haun and Sheldon Haun

As a music specialist in the public schools for 16 years, I have had orchestral and general music experience with children from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In 1992, my new teaching assignment included an autistic preschool class; I had not worked with children with autism before, and it became possibly the most rewarding experience I have had in those 16 years. I learned from the classroom teacher that the previous "formal music class" had not engaged the children: the songs were too sophisticated, the children didn‘t play any instruments, they didn‘t do any movement...they were not involved. I realized that I would need an approach that appealed to the whole child, with each class including both fine and large motor movement as well as listening, chanting, singing, and playing instruments. I would also need to make sure that there were ample opportunities for communication and interaction between the children and adults. We scheduled the 12 children with autism to meet twice a week for 30 minutes. The following routine evolved:

Although the children delight in familiar chants, we also expose them to new words to increase their vocabulary.

My personal favorite is to have the children take turns accompanying a song on the drum or resonator bells; the child sets the tempo and everyone sings along. The player is then asked to pass the instrument and mallets politely to the next player. This enriches the children‘s social, behavioral, and emotional development. When the children are ready to get up, we sing a song and move our bodies in place. We may transfer weight from one leg to another to a steady beat or move high and low to illustrate changes in pitch or size. We then move around the room to recorded music; I use the same recording for several class meetings, varying the type of music from waltzes to marches to ethnic music. Returning to our circle, we sit on the floor and enjoy rocking to a soothing lullaby.

Because we were in a public school setting, there was not always one adult per child; however, the student-teacher ratio was small, and each child was shown some affection and support. Once the children are calmed, I sing and chant various patterns, words, or nonsense sounds into a pretend microphone and listen for the class to echo. The teacher and aides provide the formal echo, but the children are encouraged to respond individually. What I speak or sing into the microphone for solo echoes depends upon the child, perhaps a pattern from one of the songs, a word the classroom teacher is working on, or something we have heard the child saying or singing. Since children with autism often have delays in processing information, they may or may not echo right away.

We always show appreciation for any attempt on each child‘s part, whenever it comes -building communication skills is what we‘re after.

We end the class with a circle dance which engages the children in large motor movement while encouraging a sense of community. As a signal to the children that class is finished, we sing the same good-bye song all year long - just as we do with the hello song at the beginning of class. Without exception, I find that something extraordinary happens during each class.

I have learned not to assume that these children cannot do an activity that I would do with "normal" preschoolers. I have seen that early intervention does make a difference in the life of an autistic child and that appealing to the whole child is a way to make this connection.

[Early Childhood Connections is a quarterly interdisciplinary journal featuring current research and pedagogical view points regarding music, movement, and language development of young children.]

[Reprinted with permission from Early Childhood Connections, published by the Foundation for Music-Based Learning. Initially published in New Developments: Volume 3, Number 1 - Summer, 1997]

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