How I Began Teaching Autistic Children
I began working with special needs children by chance. In fact, I was teaching music and movement group classes for 2 to 4 year-old children when a parent reached out to ask if I would be able to conduct one-to-one lessons for her autistic son. I gamely said yes, not knowing that it would set me down this immensely rewarding path.
My first lesson did not go as planned. We only accomplished 1 out of the 10 items I had on my lesson plan. Oh boy. Furthermore, he was unable to stay focused for more than a minute, or to follow instructions on how to play any instrument. With the tambourine, he would spin it round and round. With the xylophone, he was more enthralled by the mallets than the sounding bars. And with handbells, he would lay them out in perfect order, but never hit it with his palm. Instead, he would put his ear close to the handbells and “listen” to all of them. I knew then that I needed to be more innovative if I were to teach him anything.
My role was to encourage speech and communication through music. Although he had a short attention span, his mom noticed that he responded well to songs at church, always humming the hymns he heard well into the week. This was their main reason for giving music lessons a try.
I observed in my lessons that when he hears a song he likes, even if he might be looking at the spinning ceiling fan, his body was moving to the music – in correct rhythm, I might add. Today, he has tons of dance moves that get us all cracking up. My favorite has to be the “shimmy” which I honestly think he taught himself!
Most of the time, gains from one therapy would spillover to another. If he did well in ABA therapy that week, he would more often than not, be able to focus better during music lessons. And because we did more singing and dancing that week, he would then perform better during his next speech therapy.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
But, when it comes to teaching an autistic child, it is often “two steps forward, one step back”. Progress is not easy to measure, because we could be gaining an inch this week, but losing it all the next. And sometimes, we just can’t help it if he’s having a bad week and refuses to participate during our lesson.
Through it all, I have learned that we just have to keep the faith. Often, week to week, I barely saw any improvement. I was constantly worried that my lessons were fruitless and that his parents had misplaced their trust in me. But in moments of clarity, I realized that if I took a step back and looked at where we are today compared to a year ago, I see how much he has gained. His attention has improved tremendously, from not being able to focus at all, to sitting through a 45-minute lesson on his own. This is an amazing feat in itself! While he still struggles with speech, his communication has improved. He knows how to show “intent”, something which we all want to see in our autistic children.
The Journey Ahead
I decided to launch The Radiant Spectrum this year, as an inclusive music school that can cater to autistic children as well. I have seen the importance of early intervention and hope that this platform will allow me to help more children on the spectrum improve. If you are a parent of an autistic child, please do not hesitate to reach out, even if all you need is a listening ear 🙂