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10 Things Music Educators Need to Know about My Autistic/ADHD Child

Updated: May 20, 2020

Please note that every Autistic child is different. As the saying goes, “If you have met one Autistic child, you have met one Autistic child.”

1. My child is capable.

It is easy to underestimate diverse learners. They often need a different path in order to achieve the same goals as their peers, but they are no less capable. A diagnosis is simply a road map providing hints for potential pitfalls and startling successes. Autistic kids may need more reinforcement at the beginning and then take off. They may take off and then unexpectedly fall off the tracks. As teachers, it is our job to help identify a child’s challenges, work with them more not less, and help them problem solve in order to reach their goals.

2. Learn about their sensory challenges, accept limited eye contact.

Every Autistic child is different. Some have sensitivities with sound, others light, some touch, others taste and/or smell. Many have a combination of the above. Learn what makes the child the most comfortable. Small changes in their learning environment can transform their life, success, and experience. Small changes such as, but not limited to: dimming the lights, speaking less loud, avoiding touch at all cost, touching their shoulder to bring them back, or clearing the room of strong scents.

For some Autistics, they can either hear you or see you, but not both. Both can be over stimulating, overwhelming, and/or distracting. Remember that eye contact may be something YOU need to feel your opinion is valued, but one can learn without eye contact and may learn better. Let them know when their eyes are needed. Please note they may need to see you out of the corner of their eye. Accept the rest.

3. Meltdown vs. tantrum: a moment in their shoes

Tantrums happen when a child can’t have what they want. Meltdowns happen when a child’s body and/or mind becomes overstimulated and overwhelmed. Autistic kids are bombarded by a level of stimulation we can not possibly imagine. It is easy to forget how much they hold together just to be a part of a conversation or just be in the music studio. Be patient. Be kind. Give them space. Give them time and understanding.

4. Assumptions are counterproductive and can lead to hurtful judgments

Autistics often think and feel very differently. Their emotions can be so overwhelming they shut down or they may have dulled emotions. Both extremes often present similarly. Assume nothing. Take time to ask questions. Know the answer may take from minutes to months to become verbalized. Continue patience and understanding. Their challenges may be completely unrelated to what you think it is, for example, a scratchy neck strap or a musically-unrelated blister on their toe. Always ask what might be happening in an accepting, nonjudgmental tone.

5. Time blindness and facial blindness

Some Autistics have no sense of time, some cannot feel time pass in any way, and some have uncanny precision to understanding time that is remarkable. Questions like: how much did you practice, when did you practice, how did you practice may be impossible for the student to answer without being trained to write in a journal. This training may take a long time and require much problem solving and reinforcement in order to become a habit.

Some Autistics are facially blind. Do not be offended if they don’t recognize you or can never remember your name. When my daughter was young, I learned this when she couldn’t recognize me after I had my hair done differently.

6. The Importance of Accurate Communication

Since many Autistics have a hard time understanding where we are coming from since they think differently, they often have a hyper-accurate use of language, and, they most likely, will correct you on it. Try not to take the advice defensively. Know that is simply how they think, process, and learn. If you use expressions and idioms, explain what they mean. Working with Autistic kids can train us as educators to form a precision of communication you never thought you were capable of. Sometimes getting a point across needs a new approach, additional breakdown, a new angle, a new perspective. Sometimes getting a point across simply needs repetition and time. And sometimes we need to change our approach and repeat over time. Keep at it. They will get there.

7. Extra time and Support, especially on what may feel intuitive to you

Autistics can see all or very little. Some Autistics can see their detailed environment in its entirety and miss the ability to filter out the less pertinent information in order to prioritize since they experience their full environment equally. Others see their environment through detail and tiny microcosms, like if we were to look through a straw. Regardless of the way an Autistic sees their world, they need our patience, help, and reinforcement to prioritize. Because they are processing so much information differently, Autistics often need extra time to process what we say, process what is happening, process what they are feeling. Wait time, giving plenty of silence to allow the child to think before responding, is essential in order for the child to be able to respond. If you fill up every silence with the same or different way of saying the same question, that child often needs to start over with their processing. Wait. I know it can be uncomfortable, but you will get used to it.

Parental support, planners, a short email reminder. These are all things that are often necessary in order for the student to succeed.

Don’t assume because an Autistic can do one really hard thing that they can do the “easy” thing. Often the “hard” things are easy and the “easy” things are seemingly impossible. Asynchronous development is common and should be expected.

8. Attention: inconsistent days and inconsistent success

With ADHD and Autism, it is often assumed that if a child can focus on x, then they can focus on y. This is not the case. ADHD-ers often either hyper-focus or struggle. This does not mean they do not care or are not interested. We know from neuroscientific research that their brains are different and are not able to attend to the things that don’t automatically interest them through pure will like a neurotypical might.

We found through EEG that the reason for my daughter’s “spacing out” during arithmetic was because she was having epileptiform events when she used that part of her brain. The event literally wipes out the short term memory which explains why memorizing math facts has been nearly impossible.

Some days will be good, some days will feel like a struggle. Learning and life is not linear. Just like everyone, Autistics have good days and bad. My experience is that the good days and bad are on a larger scale and continuum. It is often like living in the land of extremes.

9. Be direct with compassion.

Autistic kids don’t usually pick up on subtlety. Be direct in a kind, non-judgmental way. When giving instruction about music or a social behavior related to music, explain why. Having an Autistic buy into why it is beneficial for them to do what is so challenging is essential. It can be extremely difficult to find words to describe something that to you is intuitive or natural. Challenge yourself to find valid reasons for behaviors and practices and develop many different accurate ways of explaining those reasons.

10. The mystery of memory: why do some concepts stick and other do not?

Where memories are stored and how memory works is still a mystery to scientists. What we know is that short and long term memory are different. Some Autistics, like my daughter, have tremendous long term memory but little to no short term memory. Help Autistics find ways of working around this challenge, know that they will need more reinforcement and many more reminders in the short term, but things may “click” at some point in the long term. Remember, Autistics are no less capable. They often just need a different path and time.

Know that Autistics may have unseen events happening in their brain that make it impossible to hold short term information. Be patient. Keep at it. Music is a place where many Autistics find refuge, community, sense of purpose, and joy. Our kids need you.


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