In the last couple of years I have discovered that I am autistic. This is likely to explain why I enjoy teaching autistic children so much, I have a natural empathy with them and with hindsight have realised how much music has helped me to find my tribe, my identity and has been a healthy obsession. In order to help you to understand my unique approach to teaching autistic people please find to follow my account of Tabitha's first lesson.
My first lesson with Tabitha was unlike any other lesson I’ve ever given. I knew from the outset that I would need to change my usual approach for Tabitha as her Mum had got my details through a local autism charity that we are both members of. Before I arrived I’d had a detailed conversation with Tabitha’s Mum so that I had a good idea of what to expect. I also made sure I wore my Doc Marten boots and tried my hardest to look cool, hip and unthreatening. My main aim for the lesson was just to build a rapport with Tabitha and try to ascertain her learning style. I also brought a selection of tutor books for her to choose from to help her feel in control and get her to buy-in to the process.
When I arrive at the house I am greeted by Tabitha and her Mum. Tabitha goes into the living room and is literally bouncing around all over the place. I decide to let her continue to burn off her excess energy and ask if she would like me to play for her, she agrees. I invite her to choose a song from the book, but she declines this offer. I decide to play Oh When The Saints Go Marching in. This is a simple tune that I would normally expect to cover within the first month of lessons and is also relatively well known. Tabitha seems to enjoy my playing. Next I want to find out how she would like to learn. I ask if she would rather I told her what to do, or if she would like to ask me questions, she doesn’t know. So, I ask her if she likes Lego. Bingo! Tabitha loves Lego, she even has her own Lego room, I ask if I can see it. Tabitha’s Mum is thankfully open to my taking this rather unusual approach, but goes with it. I take an interest in the Lego and note that most of it appears to be built from instructions rather than being of Tabitha’s own design. I ask if Tabitha likes to build her own things from her imagination, look at pictures and copy then, or follow instructions. Tabitha is a following the instructions type builder. Awesome – I now know her learning style. I suggest to her that with her learning the Keyboard the best thing for us to do is to follow the instructions. Tabitha agrees. On the way down Mum gets my eye and comments along the lines “that was clever – I see what you did there”.
So, we’re in. Tabitha comes down and sits at the keyboard, she chooses one of the more grown-up versions of the Keyboard tutor books that I have brought with me. We then start at the beginning and read it word for word. This isn’t something I think I’ve ever done before preferring to do my own explanations, but it works well in this situation. The first page explains what the different buttons do. Tabitha learns how to choose different voices and drum beats on the keyboard and also teaches her Mum how to do this. Tabitha also learns which notes are which on the keyboard.
We are nicely settled, but are unfortunately interrupted by a knock at the door. Tabitha reverts to bouncing around the room on her gym ball. I ask her to bounce in a steady rhythm and I play When the Saints in time with that pulse. She manages to keep quite a steady beat and bounces in time for most of the song. She certainly has a lot of energy. I ask if she thinks I can play this song any quicker, she thinks not. I increase the tempo by about 20 beats per minute (bpm) and play it again. Then I ask if she wants to increase the tempo whilst I play. She comes back over to the keyboard and enjoys increasing the tempo button and forcing me to play faster and faster until we reach the maximum 280 bmp. Kids always love it when I let them do this. Now we are back at the keyboard we can continue going through the instructions. We just about have time to work through the first few exercises and I encourage her to download the online videos and audio that come with the book so she can refer to these during the week.
I ask Tabitha if she wants me to come back next week, she nods, mission accomplished.
Like I said, this is nothing like a usual first lesson, but it totally worked for Tabitha allowing her to be physically active and in control of her learning. I feel we have built a solid foundation and am pleased to have been able to put some of the skills I’ve learned from parenting my own autistic child into use in a teaching capacity. I still recognise that although this approach worked well for Tabitha, the next time I meet a new pupil with autism they will take me on a totally different journey, one I feel privileged to be a part of.