Success with Autism: Prepare for Change

“Planning for the unknown can avoid a great deal of fear and anxiety for children with special needs,” says MENC member Scott H. Iseminger. “Any sort of change shakes apart the predictability of their world.” Changes in routine (e.g., watching a music video or rehearsing on the stage) can bring negative behaviors and tantrums.

Iseminger recommends an intentional approach:

  • To ease a transition from an Autoharp unit to a recorder unit, make an announcement (“Today is the last day for Autoharp because next week we begin playing the recorder.”), and put a visual clue on a large calendar (e.g., “Last day for Autoharp” or “Autoharp STOP,” “First day for recorders” or “Recorders YES”).
  • To show a DVD (e.g., The Nutcracker in December), put a picture of the DVD or a TV on the calendar for that date at least a week ahead of time.
  • To prepare for a concert dress rehearsal, post a picture of risers or the children standing on risers on that date.
  • When the class is finished working on a song, put it in an “All Done” folder to show that the class won’t be working on it anymore.
  • Write a short, simple picture story for the autistic child to read during the week preceding the major changes.
  • Keep the number of changes to a minimum. Following a concert, introduce new songs slowly after reviewing the choir’s favorite song from the concert. Finish with a familiar song.

Field Trips

Field trips can be especially frightening. Not only is the daily routine being broken, but students are visiting an unfamiliar place.

Put together a short picture story with simple captions:

  1. picture of a bus with the date of the field trip
  2. pictures of the destination (e.g., outside of an orchestra hall, the lobby, and the auditorium—often available on the Internet or a brochure)
  3. picture of a bus for the return trip
  4. picture of the school

Include a schedule listing the time you’ll leave school, the time you’ll arrive at the destination, a list of the songs to be performed, and the time you’ll return to school. If this is an annual trip, reuse the same story every year.

This article was adapted from “Keys to Success with Autistic Children,” by Scott H. Iseminger, Teaching Music, April 2009.

Scott H. Iseminger teaches at Krejci Academy, a therapeutic day school for children and adolescents with behavioral, emotional, developmental, and autistism spectrum disorders in Naperville, Illinois.

—Linda C. Brown, October 6, 2010, © MENC: The National Association for Music Education (