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A view from the autism spectrum: living with and teaching music

In this article, Dr Stephen Shore, Assistant Professor of Special Education at Adelphi University, author, musician and autistic speaker discusses his experiences of music as a child through to adulthood and how music has shaped his life. 

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Author: Dr Stephen Shore

A view from the autism spectrum: Observations on my living with and teaching music

       “Music is organized sound” (Varese, n.d.)

Having been listening to music since my prenatal days I’ve never not known music. Mostly classical with some folk and jazz, music played in my home all day and often all night. Little did anyone know just how important music was to become in organising my development, learning, studies, and eventual work with individuals on the autism spectrum.

After 18 months of typical development I was struck with “The Autism Bomb”.  Also known as “regressive autism,” I lost functional communication, had meltdowns, withdrew from the environment, and in brief, became a severely affected child on the autism spectrum.  With so little known about autism, it took my parents a year to find a place for diagnosis.  Fortunately, my parents – like we see with so many today – refuted the strident professional recommendation for institutionalisation, advocated on my behalf, and convinced the school to take me in about a year.  

It was during that year my parents implemented what we today would refer to as an intensive home-based early intervention program emphasising music, movement, sensory integration, narration, and imitation.  All this was done before even the concept of early intervention existed.  

Music played a large role in this “early intervention”.  We sang, moved, talked, danced, slept, and did almost everything imaginable to music.  When my parents attempts to get me to imitate them in words, song, and movement failed, they flipped things around and began imitating me.  Upon doing so I became aware of them in my environment and they were able to move things along.  This imitation was key (all puns intended) in developing a trusting relationship with them – similar to how a skilled music therapist improvises around musical actions as a way of organising communication and trust with their client.  

With the work my parents did, speech began to return at age 4. I spent a year in the clinic that initially rejected me, followed by starting school at age 6.  While I was a social and academic catastrophe in school, my parents started me on piano lessons at home.  The most valuable thing I learned from those lessons was how not to teach people with autism how to play an instrument.

Middle and high school were much better than elementary for me because I joined the band on trumpet and later switched to trombone.  Music became such a great interest that I would spend hours in the instrument closet with various A Tune a Day beginner books, learning to play as many instruments as possible.  Continuing to organise my life around music, I joined community ensembles and studied music education in college through to doctoral level – before “defecting” to special education with a focus on autism.

Today, I accomplish my mission of making lives better for individuals on the autism spectrum by doing the following.  As a professor I teach courses to students in education, psychology, and other areas to best support pupils with autism, as well as researching best practice in supporting individuals needs and the transition to adulthood. 

In addition to writing books and articles related to autism, I consult and give workshops internationally on issues related to autism.  At this time I have presented in 40 countries across 6 continents and have only 4 of the United States left to cover in my “autism travels”.  Also, I serve on the boards of autism-related organisations such as Autism Speaks, and finally, give music lessons to children on the autism spectrum. 

Closely adapted from the Miller Method (Miller, 2007; Miller & Eller-Miller, 1989), I have developed a highly experiential approach, beginning with the child and I co-creating materials that will be used to teach familiarity with the instrument (usually the piano or recorder) and reading notation.  I have found that music can be made accessible and enjoyable to people throughout the entire autism spectrum.  

For example, a number of my nonspeaking students have learned to play (and sing) very well.  Some of the individuals I teach have the ability to become professional musicians should they so choose, whereas others have to work harder.  Yet they all benefit from, and enjoy engaging with, music – just like everyone else.  For additional information about my teaching techniques please see True Inclusion through Music on my website.

Music has served me well over the years and I am only where I am today because of the power of this art form to help me organise my life.  My hope is that I can give back what I have gained by sharing the love of learning and playing music with others on the autism spectrum.

References

Edgard Varese. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved January 6, 2016, from BrainyQuote.com website

Miller, A. (2007). The Miller Method®: Developing the capacities of children on the autism spectrum. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Miller, A. & Eller-Miller, E. (1989). From ritual to repertoire: A cognitive-developmental systems approach with behavior-disordered children. New York: Wiley.

 

Date added: 12 January 2016