Schedules and Other Approaches Can Be Helpful to Students with Autism

The Freedom of Structure

By: Patience Moore

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 edition of Teaching Music Magazine

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freedom of structure
iStock; Inset; Max Wagenblass


RHODA BERNARD, director of professional education and enrichment at The Boston Conservatory in Massachusetts, and founder of their Program for Students on the Autism Spectrum, is forging deeply into the satisfactions of teaching music to students on the autism spectrum. With the team at The Boston Conservatory, she has honed “principals” that allow for success in the music classroom. “Structure, structure, structure.

Students on the spectrum do not like surprises. Show a schedule and follow it. Prepare students for anything unusual that might happen, like having to hold class in a different space. There are social stories, which offer text and visuals that walk the individual through the unusual situation and show that everything will be just fine.”

She also encourages the use of social stories: click here and here for more information. For teaching, Bernard utilizes “concrete and specific instructional aids” such as enlarging font size, creating a page that includes only the section of music that will be worked on that day so that it is all that student sees, and color-coding (e.g., pitches for help with note names).

For singers, the teacher can use melodic contour notation, and notation that combines melodic contour notation with solfège or note names. It can also be helpful to reorganize the music so that an entire piece is shown in the order that it is to be played—with no need to go forward or back to another section—and to use animals, movement, and other means to demonstrate and describe musical elements such as tempo and dynamics.

To avoid audio over-stimulation, the student can have a signal to show the teacher when classroom volume is a problem; the remedy can be a place for the student to go or a sound barrier such as noise-canceling headphones. Most important, Bernard has found that fostering the relationship with the specific student is the best approach.

“For a lot of people, it can be difficult to understand the person in front of them because they exhibit unusual behaviors due to their autism.

We are dedicated to seeing the person, not the disability. Our instructors dig deeper and see the person behind the behaviors and work with that person— who loves music—to be a better musician.”

For information on Bernard’s private musical instrument lessons program, click here. For the “Teaching Music to Children on the Autism Spectrum” conference, click here.

Other resources include:




The 3rd Annual NAfME National In-Service PreConference in Nashville, TN, Saturday, October 25th and Sunday, October 25th will focus solely on students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Our all-star set of clinicians will join K-12 teachers as well as parents and students with ASD to present this interactive, authentic, and practical seminar. One graduate credit and/or a certificate will be presented to teachers who complete the two day preconference.


2015 NAfME National In-Service PreConference Session Topics Include:

  • Creating Music Curriculum and Well-Structured Classrooms for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Using the iPad and other Assistive Technology for Students with Autism  
  • How-To Use Differentiated Instruction, Positive Behavioral Support, and a Developmental Relationship-Based Approach for Students with Autism
  • Building Inclusive Ensembles 
  • Breaking Barriers: Removing “Can’t” From the Classroom

 Don’t miss the In-Service EARLY BIRD RATE. The deadline is July 31!


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