Using Music to Enhance Communication for the Child with Asperger Syndrome

Stephen M. Shore, Ph.D.

Sam is a 12-year old boy with Asperger Syndrome. He had recently been rejected from a private school specializing in Asperger Syndrome for being “too low functioning.” His mother, a professional musician, knew Sam had much musical talent but had yet to find anyone who could teach him how to read music. At our first meeting, she also expressed concerns about the difficulties Sam would begin to face as he entered adolescence.

As with all the children I work with, I requested that a parent (or significant caretaker) join in the lessons. Not only are parents the experts on their child; the lessons give them another way to relate to their child, and they can do additional work with the child between lessons. Occasionally though, the presence of the parent distracts the child from learning. In these cases I start by working only with the child and then gradually involve the parent.

In my first lesson with Sam I made gridlines on a notebook- sized piece of paper, resulting in a 7 row by 10 column box matrix. After placing a few A’s on the first line, B’s on the second, down to G on the last line, I asked Sam if he would like to continue. Eager to do so, he quickly took the paper and started filling in the blank spaces with letters.

Many people on the autism spectrum have a strong need for order and completion. A piece of paper that looked like this…
(see upper grid)

…soon looked like…
(see lower grid)

Sam’s need for order and completion enabled him to control and penmanship. Arranging his environment to take advantage of this characteristic worked much better than treating this need for order and completion as aberrant behavior.

Later on during the lesson, I started cutting the individual squares from the piece of paper and then passed the job over to an eager Sam. While he worked on this project, I drew a treble clef and staff on a larger piece of paper along with a lighter dashed line for middle C. Then I drew a B on the middle line and asked Sam if he knew where C went. He responded with an anxiety-filled no! I drew the letter in the space above the B.

A query about where D belonged elicited the same response. I now asked if Sam could just guess where the letter D might go. Now he answered correctly, and I had him writing the letters in the right places on the staff.

With the letters’ placements marked out Sam was now able to place those lettered squares he previously cut out onto the staff in the right locations upon my request.

Soon we were spelling words such as “bag, dad, eat, and ace,” followed by simple complete songs such as “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” and “Mary had a little lamb” which I then played on a musical recorder.

Shortly thereafter we ran out of space on that sheet of paper and it was time to make another sheet of staff paper. Sam’s anxiety rose dramatically at my request to draw the staff lines and the treble clef this time. However, his reluctance melted away just as quickly when I offered him assistance in drawing the lines.

During the second lesson we progressed to writing the note letters on yellow stickies paper and posting them on both the staff paper and the piano keyboard. As Sam began to play “Hot Cross Buns,” at first with the stickies bearing note names and then without, his mother was so overwhelmed with emotions that she broke down in tears. Sam looked over at her and with just a bit of nudging from me gave his mother a big hug. Who said that those with Asperger Syndrome are emotionless?

It appeared that Sam was very anxious about failing at tasks. When he understood that he was in a safe environment without penalties for making mistakes, he did very well. I suspect that Sam’s behavioral challenges in school were a result of not feeling safe academically. During my first lesson with Sam much of the conversation centered on his concern for what an F grade meant, and that it was not good to get such a grade. But the next time I saw Sam there was no mention of grades. Sometimes Sam would immediately reject a request with “no!” only to commence the task a few seconds later. Perhaps his “no!” was in reality a bid for more processing time. Other than easily being overwhelmed with anxiety over failing, Sam seems to enjoy the continuing sessions and is a pleasure to work with.

By placing the notes on this staff in this manner Sam learned how to read music and apply it to a piano keyboard. The difference between this approach and traditional music education is that the primary goal of decoding musical notation was incidental to the activity from Sam’s point of view. In other words, a more traditional way to teach Sam music would involve spending a lot of time sitting in a chair, explaining and showing Sam the names for the lines of the staff, notes, and their relationships. Using a kinesthetic approach engages Sam in the creation of his own learning materials, which served to reinforce the physical activities of putting the notes in the right place on the staff, followed by placing them on the piano keyboard. For people on the autism spectrum, it seems important for the physical aspect of the body to be in order before attending to the emotional and cognitive aspects. Additionally, by assisting in the creation of his own resources Sam probably felt ownership of the learning materials and the activity. I was able to work with him not only on music, but on communication, taking turns, and fine-motor control.

When the time comes for Sam to get his first piano book, he will have a good background in the musical concepts presented in the text, having already ascended the initial learning curve involved in reading, understanding, and converting notation to music on the piano keyboard. He also now has a skill that will help him to interact with others. Perhaps the school that rejected Sam was too low functioning for him.

With the child that already plays an instrument, I will introduce myself into their world by sharing the instrument via turn taking. When I play the instrument the child accompanies me on the percussion. Then we will switch roles. The turns start out short and gradually lengthen to where I work on other issues such as verbal skills, writing, and motor control as needed. To establish equality between us, I must also take my turns doing anything I require of him or her. I too, for example, need to ask for permission to use the keyboard if the child is already using it.

Music in Ensembles

For the child at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, the school band may represent or provide an important avenue for development. The trombone requires a good kinesthetic sense of where one’s arm is in order to place the trombone slide in the right place for a note to be in tune. Other instruments, except for the stringed ones, require less ear-toarm coordination as the pitches are obtained with the assistance of keys or valves. The French horn, however, demands much coordination of the embouchure. (Embouchure is French, meaning flow into mouth. The word refers to the position and use of the lips, tongue, and teeth in playing a wind instrument. Sometimes it refers to the mouth piece of a musical instrument.) Percussion may be another avenue. If complex rhythms present a challenge, the bass drum may be a good choice as the musical patterns are relatively simple. Additionally, the bass drum with its low and relatively simple sound waves is often easier for a person with sound sensitivities to handle. Finally, being at the rear of a potentially cacophonous musical ensemble may be of help, as it is less noisy there.

Location in the ensemble may have to take sensory sensitivities into account. If a student with autism insists on playing a certain instrument and it is clear that there will be problems with sound sensitivities, allowing the child to sit in a different location may be easier than rearranging the ensemble in a nonstandard manner. I skipped many jazz band rehearsals in high school because the director was unwilling to let me sit elsewhere than right in front of the blaring trumpets. In addition to the purely musical benefits, playing in an ensemble is good for working on cooperation with others, coordination, and a sense of accomplishment.

This article previously appeared in spring 2003 edition of The Source, a publication of ASC-US.

Dr. Stephen M. Shore is a President Emeritus of the AANE Board of Directors. He lectures all over the world on autism and Asperger Syndrome, and is the author, co-author, or contributor to many books, including Beyond the Wall: Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger Syndrome, published in 2001 by AAPC, Autism for Dummies (2006) and Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism Spectrum (2004, AAPC). To enquire about private music lessons, contact Dr. Shore at Read more at