Posts Tagged 'autism treatment'

Autism and Generalization

Monday, August 16th, 2010 No Commented
Under: Autism

Learning a new skill can be challenging and it often helps to begin instruction in a controlled environment like a classroom. Once this goal is achieved, it is equally important to learn (and teach) how to translate the skill into other scenarios. Literally, every skill or lesson learned should be able to be generalized by the student. The challenges associated with generalizing learned skills are a developmental characteristic of many students on the autism spectrum. These are three things teachers and/or parents should measure after the student has mastered a skill.

The student’s ability to generalize skills across:


If a student can individually and successfully complete a task (such as reading) only in the presence of a particular person, this will not lead to a self-sustaining situation for him/her. The student will be expected to read in the presence of any number of different individuals in the course of his scholastic studies. Each person will also have his/her own unique way of interacting with the learner which should not affect the outcome of the skill or situation. In instructional situations, these are largely teacher driven activities which currently require an instructor to be present. There are also a number of social and life skills which may benefit from conducting short generalization trials.


Life skills, such as tooth brushing, often run the risk of failure if the skill is taught at school and not subsequently taught in different areas as well. There are a high number of relatively small differences from one room to the next; the light switch location, faucet design, cabinets and so on. The goal is not to teach to each and every one of these different variables, rather it is to instill in the student the ability to recognize these differences and react appropriately.


Here again, while there are various minor and sometimes major differences associated with physical items used in a skill, the student should be able to use any of these items to complete the relevant task at hand. For instance, microwaves come in many different shapes and sizes and it seems that each one has a unique operating panel. Even so, there is a universal nature to completing this task which can be taught to; such as teaching to different door opening mechanisms, locating the number panel to indicate the length of cooking, and so on.

It is very important that the learner has mastered a skill, before any attempts at generalization take place. Generally speaking, if a student can not yet complete a task in a particular setting it is unlikely that they will be able to complete it in another. Instead of teaching to each and every type of microwave or in dozens of possible locations one might brush their teeth, instructors can take performance data on several sample situations. This will give them a clearer picture of whether or not the student will be able to successfully generalize each skill with any person, in any location and using various materials to complete the task.

Mnemonic Teaching Styles

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 No Commented
Under: Autism

Some individuals with autism have challenges with certain abstract concepts, such as assigning lines on a page, to a specific word or letter and further correlating that letter to a certain key of the piano (not to mention other variables such as dynamics ). Alternatively, other students with autism may grasp this concept completely, yet behavioral challenges hinder his/her ability to effectively and independently execute the response described above. For those unfamiliar with the mnemonic style teaching methods used in traditional piano education, the following is a brief explanation. To assist students in the memorization of letters representing lines and spaces which comprise musical notation, many teachers incorporate a series of words which represent a corresponding line on a musical staff.

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine
  • Every, Good, Boy, Deserves, Fudge
  • (or even)
  • Elephant, Goes, Boating, Drowns, Fast

By isolating the first letter of each word and pairing it with the appropriate line in the musical staff, many students tend to memorize the sequence with less difficulty. The above example relates to the ‘lines’ of the Treble Clef staff. Successfully teaching this sequence largely relies on repetition and the subsequent fading of these prompts. The successful acquisition of this skill (of reading musical notation) is, classically, very important in piano education.

Approaching the piano education of a student with autism in a typical manner may exacerbate comprehension/behavior challenges and result in increasing the student’s (and the teacher’s) frustration level. It is important to point out that the method explored in this article was designed with and for individuals with moderate to severe autism and uses an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis ) style approach. Students with less behavioral and comprehension challenges may very well benefit from a more typical style of piano instruction material (as opposed to lesson format) which is the ultimate goal of this system. Of course, higher functioning students with autism will, most likely, require a qualified teacher who attends to the student’s social and overall developmental characteristics.

I feel that I must also address the notion associated with a student’s ability to ‘play by ear’ and how this effects the student’s education at the piano. Traditionally, students of music have been taught to read and interpret musical notation as a rule. This not only develops the student’s ability to effectively respond to written stimuli (which could pay dividends in other areas when teaching individuals with autism) but it also lays the groundwork for future musical explorations. An auditory understanding of musical tonalities may be developed (or have been developed through trial and error) by a student and is, later, a core component in musical education. A reliance on only this auditory aspect, though, and a subsequent disregard for the student’s ability to read and interpret musical notation is, in my estimation, in the least counterproductive and potentially undermines the student’s development. A piano teacher’s proclivity to shy away from having a more challenged student explore the skill of reading musical notation could be due to any number of factors; including an understandable lack of knowledge concerning the education of individuals with autism. Most students of art understand that, although learning the fundamentals of a craft is of primary importance, later exploration, interpretation and development often involves stretching those boundaries and interpreting those fundamentals on an individual basis. While Picasso’s later work was revolutionary, one can trace his development from the traditional to the explorative. This is why all of our students begin instruction by learning to play and read music.

Recently, I had a discussion with a parent about the possibility of beginning piano instruction with a student residing in Greece. After explaining how the materials would be introduced and consequently faded based on the student’s performance data the gentleman stopped me. He let me know that the student had begun general music lessons a few months ago and was currently using the Do, Re, Me or tonic sol-fa style of instruction (which is popular throughout Europe). How could the student begin piano instruction with a new system and avoid confusion? Arguments can be made for either not pursuing instruction with the mnemonic style mentioned above or mixing them and clearly differentiating them but that is not what caught my attention. Any teaching aid such as Do, Re, Me or Every, Good, Boy, should be treated like any other prompt; with the clear understanding that they need to be completely faded in order for the student to be considered independently able to play the instrument. This concept is clearly understood by various authors of typical piano instruction material, in the sense that Primer Level instruction manuals usually begin with clearly labeled notes and then remove most of these note letter prompts. The deciding factors, in respect to the efficacy of this method are: the rate at which the prompts are faded, the style in which they are faded and the teacher’s objective understanding of when or even if these prompts can be faded.

The ultimate fate of a teaching prompt is for it to be faded and – in effect – forgotten by the student. One only has to consider another skill such as writing and forming sentences to realize how many rules of grammar one is using without consciously attending to the matter. Therefore, as a musician exercising the skill of sight-reading music, my interaction with the instrument is not based on a conscience reaction to the stimuli of the letters reflecting notes which subsequently reflect keys of the piano. Rather, the stimuli, i.e. musical notes, and their symbolic representations have been engrained to the point at which consciously identifying each variable (and deliberately executing each response) would actually inhibit my ability to perform. Although my response is guided by these prompts, it is much more a question of interpretation and reaction than of consciously identifying, matching and executing. When learning how to play music is approached in these terms, the question of which style of prompts is initially being used becomes far less important. It is the student’s ability to correctly and independently react to the stimuli (regardless of its form) which is important and can also be objectively measured to determine the efficacy of the approach.

A further analysis of this concept will reveal that if it is deemed, objectively, that the student has not yet met a predetermined criterion and therefore has not acquired the skill, the prompts can be changed or individualized to the learner. I must stress this point because it has been central to the construction of this piano education series. If the student does not meet the criterion set forth and therefore independently perform the skill, the current phase of the approach has failed, not the student. Considering that the goal of early piano instruction is to have the student depress a particular key of the piano contingent on a musical note, which has been labeled with a letter, teachers may consider adding color to the letter or replacing the letter with a shape. Once this shape is successfully paired with its corresponding piano key, the process of fading these prompts can begin based on the student’s performance data. In other words, in respect to a student learning in this manner, an audience will ultimately have no way to distinguish this student’s playing style because the responses are identical to a traditionally trained student. It should also be noted that a student’s ability to read words is not a factor in this style of piano education. The above mentioned mnemonic teaching examples can be broken down by using the first letter of each word. The student is then taught to match corresponding letters on the piano keys. His interpretation of this letter or his understanding of its grammatical value is irrelevant. What is being ascertained is his response to the prompt (or letter/shape associated with the note) which can be easily and objectively measured by the teacher.

Without a clear and objective system to record, analyze and act on a student’s performance data, it is much more difficult to determine when or if these phases should be enacted and subsequently faded. My research has shown that, while a student’s past performance with similar programs does aid in the teacher’s capability to assess possible outcomes, it frequently fails to accurately forecast their ability (or inability) to perform tasks such as playing an instrument. The student’s current challenges with reading, writing and certain fine-motor activities can often foster a subjective assessment of his or her future progress or even effect the decision to begin instruction at the piano in the first place. Developing an understanding of the elasticity of prompts in respect to piano instruction and the importance of objectively ascertaining the effectiveness of these prompts has shown to create a learning environment which adapts to the student and helps expand previously held assumptions.

When these considerations are taken into account, a world of positive interaction with the piano can be opened to a much wider range of individuals who may have displayed difficulty with previous piano instruction methods. While certain studies of typical students link playing the piano to benefits in fine-motor, math and comprehension skills, students with autism could also benefit in other areas. These include; social development, community interaction, the generalization of this skill to other instruments and an overall increase in extracurricular time spent in a structured and educational activity.

Coping With Autism Diagnosis

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 No Commented
Under: Autism

It is only normal and natural to feel a certain sense of loss when your child is diagnosed with an Autistic Spectrum Condition or a diagnosis of any kind that puts the child in a Special Needs category. It could be Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Asperger’s, Pervasive Development Disorder, ADHD, Tourette’s, or any other mental disabillity and any other mental and physical disabilities.

Knowing that your child or loved one that you once dreamt of is not the ideal and flawless child and the dream is shattered is very heartbreaking and emotionally upsetting. It can even break a relationship. It may perhaps damage a perfectly normal relationship to cause an immense psychological strain on a relationship.

It undoubtedly puts a huge strain on a family, the family members including siblings and especially the main carer. Psychotherapy or any counselling should be sought to help you with this side of your relationship. Talking through the strain can only help you, your child and your relationship with your partner. Having someone to support each other can only strengthen the relationship and serve to help your child.

Overcoming the hurdle of the initial diagnosis, is by no means an easy one and you must overcome this obstacle and difficulty, by thinking foremost of your child’s needs and the fact that your child needs you to help them. Always try to get the help that they need for them and for you.

Your child or loved one is and always be (whether on a large or small scale) a special needs child who is special and needs special care. Don’t as a parent or carer think of it as a disability (which it clearly is). However, you must think of it in a way that your child is indeed “special” in the most unique way possible and your child ultimately “needs” you, in your own eyes. Therefore, you cannot and should never let your child down. Although, there are days where this may not be possible, we are human after all and we can break down at times. Believe me this has happened to me a number of times. If you have a male partner, you’ll find that it is much harder for them, at least the majority of mothers learn to control their feelings in front of the child most of the time. Learn to go through these feelings, don’t dwell on it, pick yourself back up and help your child or loved one. Never give up entirely.

The only person your child or loved one can rely on is YOU. You have to make yourself stronger both mentally and physically. Be prepared to be strong so that you are prepared psychologically and physically for the challenges. These are challenges and not problems that will inevitably lie ahead of you and your life. I am not going to say that there won’t be challenges, there will be to varying degrees of challenges, depending on the child and how you are handling it. Even with a normal typical child, there will be challenges but to a different extent.

Bereave, cry, seek help, therapy and anything you can to overcome this grief. You will ultimately overcome this grief, it might take a few weeks, months, years but you will triumph over this. Believe in yourself and your child and you’ll overcome this shock of your child’s diagnosis and feeling of being deprived of a normal child you thought you had.

Start focusing on your life and your child in your life. Take one day as it comes and don’t look too much in the future as to what will happen or what won’t happen. Think about what might happen when you are in your child’s life supporting and helping them. Think of helping the child every day and in every way in their special life, with their special needs, that only you being the carer or parent will take care of personally. You will look for seeking further help for them and on their behalf.
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I recommend seeking and attending support groups as soon as you feel ready after the diagnosis and get involved. Meeting other parents in similar circumstances, seeking guidance and support, try to seek therapy for your family and/or child, attending courses on how to deal with the challenging behaviors, etc. This can all help. Read as many books and learn strategies to handle behavioral problems, learn from Autism forums, the internet on what to do and find support groups local to where you are. In the UK, we have NAS – National Autistic Society and in the USA there are far more Autistic Organizations. Take it from me, I have experienced all of this and I conquered it. If I can overcome and conquer this, so can you.