inclusive non-verbal autism students and their opportunities

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    I have have students in my 4th grade classes that have moderate to severe autism and one is non-verbal. Over the past year I’ve been at the school, I’ve been getting more integration from them in to music class. In grade 4, the typical curriculum is vocal music. I’m wondering how other educator have approached this situation. I want them to be involved in our regular classroom in some capability and don’t want them to have an opportunity to be a part of the upcoming holiday concert. I’m looking for some innovative solutions to serve these populations in our community! Your help is appreciated.

    Tyler in Mass.


    Hi Tyler, I spend one afternoon each week teaching music at a school for children with moderate to severe disabilities. I typically have students with a variety of disabilities in any given class and I try to find innovative ways to include all the children in the activities, often modifying the expectation for students who are non-verbal or have a physical disability preventing participation in a particular activity. For performances, I often include motions or simple movements in addition to singing so that all students (even those who are nonverbal) can engage in the performing experience. I also have included simple percussion in performances, having all or some students play the heartbeat on shakers or jingle bells (instruments requiring only gross motor motion). This way students who may not be able to sing can contribute to the musical fabric of the performance. I often ask the child’s aid to assist with hand over hand instruction during the performance to keep the child on the steady beat. I have occasionally run into a situation where a child with autism (or other disability) has very impressive rhythmic abilities. In this case I have provided an opportunity for pentatonic improvisation on a glockenspiel (removing the fa and ti bars), assisting the child to play independently on the beat or subdivision. The success of individual children on this task has been impressive and surprising at times. At any rate, I do have all my students participate in performances and I find ways to keep them involved even if they can’t sing. Teachers and parents have consistently been quite impressed with the level of participation elicited during music time. I find that by providing different kinds of opportunities, I can find one that works for each individual child. I find this work incredibly rewarding. It is often my favorite part of the week! 🙂 Hope this helps! ~Sarah B., Council for General Music Chair



    What a great post and I love what Sarah had to say–keeping them involved is so essential but you have to find what works for each student. Just like our regular ed students, these students have individual treasures that will work–we just need to open the right box to find out what works. I have a variety of strategies students in my school (we identify our students with autism as “strategies students”) who are at varying levels in the autism spectrum. I have so many different thoughts and ideas to share, I won’t be able to share all of them here. But some of the basic ideas are that schedules for our entire population of students is important, but sometimes more important for students with special needs. I always have my schedule posted on the board and we walk through it when I start class such as this:

    1. Vocal Warm-up DRM-SL
    2. Reading DRM-SL (“Deta, Deta”)
    3. Pentatonic Pitches on Xylos
    4. Play pentatonic pitches on Xylos
    5. Review = What did we learn?

    This gives the entire class comfort in knowing what comes next in the lesson and I have found scheduling to be important for my strategies students. (Referencing the schedule throughout the lesson can help…some students need to have a check mark put next to ones we have completed, other students are okay as long as they know we are done with #1 and are on to #2). One treasure I have found with my students who have autism is to have visual cards made. My aides have been fantastic in assisting with making and laminating these cards. Some students need visual cues for the lesson plan. I have one student who needs it to be reminded when to sing and when to stay quiet (one picture has a face of a person singing and under it says “sing” and then the other one has a face of a person with a finger in front of his mouth and it says “quiet” under the picture). Some of my students can hold the cards and point to them to remind the student of when to sing and when to be quiet. And I have a variety at my disposal for instrument playing, or “no touch” or “time to play” for those who need that visual reminder and visual cue.

    As Sarah mentioned, having alternate instrumentation for these students is a great idea. I often have my students try to perform what the class is doing before I modify because, as Sarah said, they will sometimes have this fantastic hidden skill that you wouldn’t have discovered had you not let them simply try with the rest of the class. There are some students that I know this idea would not be realistic, but I always give them a modified activity that relates to what we are doing (having a practice pad for a snare drum with some drum sticks so they can try to pat the beat can be a great idea). Having other tangible items might help also–I have used sandpaper for rough sounding music and cotton on paper for soft music…play the music and they have to touch what it sounds like. Moving with scarves is a REALLY fun thing to do with these students because the visual is great and they really feel that they can extend their bodies in a way they are not used to doing–plus it looks REALLY cool at concerts when the kids move fast/slow or do a different movement for a piece in rondo form.

    As a special aside–one of my most treasured memories as a teacher was when a strategies student verbalized for the first time in my classroom! After quite a few months, one day all of the sudden this student just started singing “Hello!” during our opening warm-up. It was so incredible and caused an eruption of celebration for the remainder of the day–tears of joy and elation all because of music! These are the moments we live for with any student in our classroom–the little sparks of learning that keep us going as teachers.

    The possibilities are endless–I hope you have as much fun thinking of creative ways to reach these students as I have. It is a continual journey of learning for me (as they say, teachers are perpetual students 🙂 ) My entire community of learners has benefitted from the new and unique ways in which I teach…amazing how we can change/adapt our approach to reach all students through music in one way or another. Best of luck as you continue your journey of teaching.


    Bridget James
    Western Division Representative
    Council for General Music Education
    National Association for Music Education

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