Success with Autism: Visual Aids

“Children with special needs are concrete learners,” says MENC member Scott H. Iseminger. “Visual information makes words more concrete. Pictures of a student sitting in a chair or playing the recorder give clear directions. Those on the autism spectrum are often stronger visual than auditory learners and have a tremendous need for visual information.”

Music teachers naturally provide visual information using charts, books, musical instruments, and music notation.

  • Use rhythm notation and beat icons to make rhythm a visual event. Point to four quarter notes or four icons while the class pats a steady beat.
  • Show a picture of a recorder with correct fingering rather than a fingering chart.
  • Clarify lyrics with pictures made from design software (e.g., Boardmaker), or decorate counting songs with pictures of each number and object.
  • Post your lesson plan. List song titles to cross out or erase as they’re completed. Or make a tab system with pictures and Velcro or magnets. As each song or activity is completed, you or the child can pull off the tab and put it in a folder marked “All done.”

Managing Behavior

To reward positive behavior: For a 30-minute class, prepare a file folder with a Velcro strip with the numbers 1 through 6. At the end of the strip, post a picture of a reward (e.g., favorite book or swing on the playground). For every 5 minutes the child follows directions and stays on task, she earns a star-shaped tab. When she sees all six tabs in place, she knows 30 minutes are done, and she gets her reward.

To establish negative consequences: Prepare a card with 3 square tabs. At the first verbal warning, remove the first tab; repeat for a second infraction. Removing the last tab means removal from the classroom or other appropriate consequence.

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 autistism spectrum disorders in Naperville, Illinois.

—Linda C. Brown, September 29, 2010, © MENC: The National Association for Music Education (