Success with Autism: Predictability

“Children with autism act out and misbehave not because they’re autistic, but because their fears and anxieties are so great,” says MENC member Scott H. Iseminger. “Children with autism and other special needs thrive on predictability.” Here are his tips for creating that predictability:

Physical Structure

  • Establish a seating arrangement, and keep it the same all year.
  • Assign the student to an appropriate-size chair, carpet square, or a masking tape outline on the floor.
  • For a child who can’t sit still, assign two chairs across the room from each other. Have her alternate chairs for each activity, providing the movement she craves.
  • For a child who refuses to sit in a chair, photograph him sitting in his chair and sitting on a carpet square. Post both photos, and ask him to choose between them when entering music class. He gets a sense of control, yet you prescribe the limits.

Routine Structure

  • Keep the structure of your lessons the same from session to session. For example, begin with a fun rhythm activity to get students going, and finish with a quiet relaxing or listening activity to calm them. The exact song or activity may vary, but the basic nature of the activity is the same and predictable.
  • Establish your music routine the first day of class as a whole experience. Children with autism will show signs of discomfort or distress because they don’t know the routine. If you can overlook and tolerate some obvious distress and complete the lesson, the child will have experienced the entire routine and established it mentally. On the second day, she’ll likely show fewer signs of distress because now she knows what to expect. If a child shows severe aggression, obviously this can’t be ignored.
  • If a child is unlikely to tolerate an entire first class, introduce him to music class for short periods, starting with the ending routine. Introduce him to the last 5 minutes of class. After several successful 5-minute sessions, he can come in for the activity preceding the final activity, and so on, until he’s in music class for the full period. (This also works for a child already in class who’s struggling and feeling overwhelmed.)

“Sometimes you just have to plow through the struggle or upset to establish the routine,” says Iseminger. “They are taking it in, despite what it looks like, calming down after one or two class sessions.”


This article was adapted from “Keys to Success with Autistic Children,” by Scott H. Iseminger, Teaching Music, April 2009. Find more helpful tips in the original article. Scott H. Iseminger teaches at Krejci Academy, a therapeutic day school for children and adolescents with behavioral, emotional, developmental, and autistic spectrum disorders in Naperville, Illinois. —Linda C. Brown, September 22, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (