Students with Special Needs – Same Expectations, Different Learning

In more than decade of teaching students with autism and other special needs, my students have taught me many things.  Most importantly, I really believe that music doesn’t discriminate and neither should I as a teacher.  And in that vein of thinking, neither should the pedagogy. They have also taught me that when they come to a lesson, I am the person with the special need and they are the average typical students.  I had better learn very quickly to function in their world.




I think there are a few keys to open those doors to their worlds and one of the most crucial is that a student with special needs may require a non-traditional approach to learning that sometimes defies standard practice.  My students have taught me that the standard rule is: if it works, it works.  Go with it.  In their worlds, students with special needs may often not be able to navigate the social interactions and behaviors, social communication, and imaginative thought scenarios common to the traditional lesson.  Much of what we traditionally do as teachers may seem irrelevant or meaningless to them unless it is presented in a way that fits their instructional needs for sometimes literal and concrete absolutes. They often need non-traditional instruction methods to learn reading and counting, among other skills.  


The important key to learning may be in the teacher’s usage of basic, literal and concrete language. To learn counting, a student with special needs may not be able to absorb or understand the layered concepts of note length, mathematic proportion, and numeric label.  For them, a “quarter, quarter, half-note” rhythmic pattern may be better learned if the lengths of the notes are translated into words that describe the actual movements they need to make to execute the skill.  The “quarter, quarter, half-note” pattern may be counted as “clap, clap, clap-hold” or “play, play, play-hold” telling the student in literal and concrete language exactly what they need to do to make the rhythm happen in sound. In the area of music reading, the higher intellectual abstraction in music theory labels may not mean much to them, or they may not be able to transfer an intellectual note reading exercise to a practical skill.  But if they approach music reading by literally looking at a note on the page, and equating it with a black or white key needed to produce the sound, finding that key in relationship to a grouping, and then chaining together patterns, they may learn to read music very well and execute it quickly at the keyboard.


In addition, routines and reward systems work very well, as does a very patient and positive attitude from the teacher. Learning a skill may take longer for these students, and may require much repetition and reinforcement.  But when it is learned, the result is a shiny reward, and the process is a golden journey that elevates the student shows them that they can achieve excellence just as well as everyone else.


Scott Price is Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of South Carolina.