Teaching guitar to autistic students requires an adapted teaching approach, but the benefits of music are undeniable.
Music is a therapeutic tool that helps with language development and social interaction in people with autism, and learning to play an instrument can also help improve motor skills. Contrary to what many people may think, autistic students can excel at playing guitar thanks to their analytical abilities and their skill at recognizing patterns.
That said, teaching guitar to students with autism requires patience as well as education and resources on how autism works.
For this article, I have contacted professional play and music therapists and read some of important content on how to teach music to autistic students. Iwill cover everything from how autism affects people, the potential benefits of music can bring to people with ASD, and some valuable tips and resources for guitar teachers. Let’s dive in!
Table of contents
- Can people with autism learn guitar?
- Understanding autism
- Music therapy and autism
- Tips for teaching guitar to autistic students
- Challenges teachers may face
- Best apps for teaching autistic students guitar
- Best books for teaching autistic students guitar
- Helping prepare autistic students for live performances
Can people with autism learn guitar?
The short answer is yes. Music is a highly beneficial therapeutic tool for many autistic individuals. It can help with language development, emotional regulation, and social interaction.
Teaching guitar to autistic students will require some adaptations and modifications to your teaching approach, but with the right resources, both you, as the teacher, and the student can succeed.
When given the right opportunities, autistic students can excel at guitar, and there are many things about guitar playing that may give people on the autistic spectrum a leg up.
Music theory has a mathematical system that is easy to understand by many people with ASD. People with autism are also analytical and good at recognizing patterns. The guitar is a pattern-based instrument, so autistic students may be quick to pick up scales, chords, songs, and even full guitar solos.
This is not to say that all people with ASD will be good at guitar. In fact, many students with ASD will struggle to learn guitar and may need more help in general.
Is learning guitar beneficial for people with autism?
Music and other art forms can be very helpful for people with autism. Children and adults with ASD often struggle to express themselves, and playing guitar, piano, bass, or other instruments might just be the perfect outlet for some people. Several studies have also shown that music therapy can help people with ASD cope with stress and anxiety and may even improve their communicative abilities.
Learning guitar or other musical instruments has also been proven to be pivotal in improving autistic students’ motor skills.
As a guitar teacher with autistic students, it is important to learn about autism and how it affects people in order to understand the autistic students you may be teaching.
Autism is not a single disorder but a broad spectrum of social, behavioral, and communicative challenges people face. This is why autism is actually more accurately referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. More than 5 million American adults are thought to have ASD, and according to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), the number of people diagnosed with autism each year continues to rise. Around 1 and 36 children are diagnosed with autism in a 2020 study.
What is autism?
Autism is not an illness or a disease. Instead, it is classified as a disorder, meaning a person with autism’s brain simply functions differently than a non-autistic person’s brain. There is no cure for ASD, as it is a condition people are born with. Most autistic people are diagnosed before the age of 10, but those with mild autism may not be diagnosed until they are adults.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that affects social communication and behavior. People on the spectrum struggle with social interaction and communication and may display repetitive behavior patterns or interests.
The exact causes of autism are not fully understood, but it is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While there is currently no cure for autism, early intervention and therapies such as behavioral and communication therapies can help individuals with autism to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
The autism spectrum
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which is why it is referred to as autism spectrum disorder. This means that it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, ranging from mild to severe. People on the more severe end of the autism spectrum will generally have a more difficult time learning guitar and will require more patience and resources to teach. Severely autistic people also typically need more assistance with day-to-day life and will struggle more to find a job and live alone.
However, as I mentioned, autism affects people in very different ways. Autistic people with mild symptoms may not require any more attention or learning resources than non-autistic students. Many mildly autistic people can live alone, hold full-time jobs, raise a family, and achieve all of the same things a neurotypical person can.
Mythbusting autism stereotypes
- Autism only occurs in boys: Data shows that boys are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. The reason for this is uncertain, but many girls are still diagnosed with ASD later in life, and many researchers believe that ASD is harder to spot in girls.
- People with autism lack empathy: People with autism do lack the same social skills as neurotypicals; however, this does not immediately signify a lack of empathy. Some autistic people have difficulty picking up on others’ emotions, but this is not the case for everyone.
- People with autism are intellectually disabled: Not all autistic people are intellectually disabled. A recent study shows that around 30% of children with ASD have an intellectual disability. This means that the majority of those on the autistic spectrum are not intellectually disabled; however, they still may struggle with social interaction and communication.
- People with autism are not capable of forming relationships: Anyone that has binge-watched Netflix’s “Love On The Spectrum” knows this stereotype is false. Those with autism will struggle more than neurotypical people to make solid connections and form relationships, but it is more than possible.
- People with autism cannot speak or communicate: People with autism struggle with communication. Around 25-30% of children with ASD are minimally verbal (meaning they speak few words). On average, autistic children speak their first words at about 36 months, nearly 2 years later than autistic children. That said, most people with ASD learn to speak fluently and can effectively communicate verbally.
Savant skills and strengths in autism
Some people with autism have extraordinary skills and abilities, which are commonly referred to as savant skills. These skills can include remarkable memory, advanced mathematical skills, artistic abilities, and virtuosic musicianship.
Savant skills are not fully understood by researchers, but most estimate that between 10-30% of those with autism have savant skills. However, not all people in the world with savant skills have ASD. Savant skills can occur in those with brain injuries and other intellectual disabilities at a rate of around 1%.
Music therapy for autism
Music therapy is a clinical practice that utilizes music to address various emotional, social, physical, and cognitive needs of individuals. It is a proven therapeutic intervention for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because it facilitates communication, social interaction, and emotional expression.
Research has also proven that music therapy can help people with autism improve their attention span, reduce stress, enhance communication, and improve social skills.
A couple of types of music therapy have been researched for use with autism:
- Improvisational music therapy uses instruments to create spontaneous musical expressions. This helps individuals with ASD improve their communication, expression, and social skills.
- Receptive music therapy involves listening to music and responding to it, which helps individuals with ASD enhance their cognitive, social, and emotional abilities.
It is important to note that music therapy may not work for everyone with autism. Some individuals may have adverse reactions to specific sounds or music, while others may not show an interest in music at all.
The benefits of music therapy in autism may vary depending on several factors, including the severity of an individual’s symptoms, their age, and their individual needs.
10 tips for teaching guitar to students on the autism spectrum
For many guitar teachers, teaching a student with ASD can have its challenges, so it is important to prepare yourself with as much information and as many resources as possible. Here are my top 10 tips for teaching guitar to students with autism.
1. Communicate in a clear and simple way
Students with autism will benefit greatly from a teacher that is clear with instructions and advice. As you go through your lessons, make sure you speak to your student in a way that is easy to understand. Break down complicated musical concepts into smaller bite-sized pieces, use fewer words when explaining things, and give your student time to process and understand what you are saying before moving on to something else.
2. Move through lessons one step at a time
Overloading a autistic guitar student with information may overstimulate them, giving your student anxiety and stress. In general, I recommend moving slower with autistic students, especially if they are just starting to learn guitar. Focus on fundamental skills like finger picking, basic chord fingerings, and simple rhythmic exercises. And most importantly, progress your student at a pace they are comfortable with.
3. Visual aids and colors can work wonders
Many autistic students are visual learners, so incorporating visual aids into your teaching can be helpful. Use diagrams, pictures, and videos to illustrate concepts and demonstrate techniques.
For example, one interesting visual aid I’ve seen guitar teachers use is placing different colors of painter’s tape on the guitar frets. Since all the guitar frets look the same, it can be difficult for all beginner guitarists, let alone those with ASD, to navigate the fretboard. So, color-coding the frets is a fun and effective way to learn the fretboard and visually engrain its anatomy into students.
4. Learn your student’s strengths and weaknesses
You should know by now from reading this article that not all people with ASD have the same skills or struggle in the same ways. Even if you have taught autistic students before, you may find that other autistic students struggle differently. Each autistic student is unique, and it’s important to tailor instruction to their individual needs and preferences. Be flexible and open to different approaches.
5. Be mindful of overstimulation
It is important to be mindful of sensory issues and overstimulation with people on the autistic spectrum. When someone with autism is “overstimulated,” it can be physically uncomfortable for that person.
Things like loud amps, screechy feedback, pick scraping, or other noises can trigger a person with ASD. But more subtle things can also cause overstimulation, such as hearing someone else practice in the next room over; or even a leaky faucet. There’s no guidebook for all the sensory difficulties, but keep this in mind and learn to recognize signs that your student may be feeling overwhelmed.
6. Use other instruments and tools as sensory breaks
Let’s face it: learning guitar can be a grueling process, especially when you are drilling scales and chord progressions. Long guitar lessons can be especially hard for people on the autism spectrum because many people with ASD struggle with sensory overload. It is recommended to allow autistic students, especially children, to take sensory breaks during lessons.
Sensory breaks can be anything from playing with playdough, legos, fidgets, card games, and more. Most experts recommend giving autistic children a 10-15 minute sensory break every hour.
Another idea for music-related sensory breaks is to allow guitar students to play bongos, a xylophone, maracas, or other percussion instruments. Rhythmic instruments are a good way to redirect an autistic student who is overstimulated. Rhythmic instruments require less thinking and focus, and the student can simply tap on a drum in a repetitive motion.
7. Focus on your student’s interests
Try to incorporate your guitar student’s interests into the lesson as much as possible. This can help keep the student engaged and motivated. For example, if your student is more interested in classical music, continue teaching classical songs and style. People with ASD also may have unique interests and obsessions that you can incorporate into your lessons. This can be as simple as giving your student themed stickers with every lesson, but any effort to integrate your autistic student’s interests can be beneficial.
8. Establish a guitar lesson routine
Establishing a consistent routine for guitar lessons can help students with ASD feel more comfortable and focused. It’s also helpful to maintain a predictable structure for each lesson. For example, start by tuning the guitar, play a warm-up exercise, and then move on to the main lesson, with a 10-minute sensory break in the middle.
9. Create a safe learning environment
Creating a supportive and welcoming atmosphere will make teaching autistic students easier and make guitar lessons more comfortable for the student. Encourage open communication, provide positive feedback, and be responsive to the student’s needs.
10. Be patient
I cannot stress enough how important patience is when teaching guitar in any sense, ESPECIALLY when teaching guitar to a student with ASD. It can be incredibly frustrating for a person with ASD to try to learn something new. So, your patience and calm can be helpful in keeping your student calm and patient while they learn guitar. Move slowly with your lessons and let the student set the pace.
11. Create small milestones
Breaking tasks into small steps can be helpful for students with autism. This can also create an obtainable reward system that gives your students with autism an achievement to strive towards. Instead of making long-term achievements such as learning to play a new song or learning a new skill, create smaller achievements that the student can reach in a single lesson.
This can help prevent them from becoming overwhelmed and creates manageable stepping stones towards larger playing goals.
12. Prepare for your lessons ahead of time
It is a good idea to have a plan for your guitar lessons ahead of time when teaching students with ASD. While you can certainly “wing it” with neurotypical students, you’ll want to map out well-structured guitar lessons for your autistic students. Customize your lesson planning based on the skill level, interests, and abilities of each of your autistic students, and make sure you structure the lessons so there isn’t too much pressure on the student.
13. Meet with the parents of your students
If your student is younger and still under the care of parents or guardians, meet with your student’s parents every few weeks and especially before you initially start your guitar lessons. Nobody knows more about a child than their parents! So, discussing goals and lesson plans with the parents of an autistic student is a great way to ensure you are doing everything right!
It is also a good idea to Have the parents of autistic students (or adult students) fill out a form before starting lessons to get an idea of triggering sensory experiences. Something like “What are the sensations that might lead the student to become overstimulated?” The parents or students can then fill out various fields for visual, auditory, smells, touch, and tastes that may cause overstimulation.
Challenges guitar teachers face with autistic students
Teaching guitar to people with ASD can present a unique set of difficulties that you, as an instructor, should be aware of. Here are some of the main challenges teachers face.
Some autistic students struggle with paying attention and focusing on certain things. This can present a difficult situation for guitar teachers because teaching guitar to a student with attention deficit issues is a challenge. Patience is imperative here, and creating organized lessons that keep your student focused will work wonders.
Outbursts and meltdowns
Autistic students may display challenging behaviors, such as meltdowns or outbursts, which can disrupt the lesson and make it challenging to maintain a positive learning environment. Therefore, it is important to communicate with the student and their parents when meltdowns occur to learn of any possible triggers and how to avoid outbursts from happening.
Difficulty with change
Many people with ASD get used to a specific routine and do not cope well with major changes to their regular schedule. Autistic students may struggle when first starting out taking guitar lessons as it may present a routine change that will be difficult to get used to. But as long as you communicate with the student and parents, create a positive learning environment, and take things slow, your student should become comfortable with guitar lessons being a part of their routine.
Best apps/websites for teaching guitar to autistic students
Online learning is the stuff of the future, and many autistic guitar students will benefit from interactive apps and websites that can help them better understand the music concepts you go over in the lessons with them. Here are some of the best apps and websites for teaching guitar to students with ASD.
1. Chrome Music Lab
Chrome Music Lab is an extremely accessible website that helps students discover the inner workings of music by playing around with various game-like tools. This tool is brightly colored and feels more like a fun puzzle than learning software, which can benefit autistic students who struggle with concentration.
2. Easy Music
Easy Music is a very handy music app for younger students. The app offers a nice balance of musical learning and play, which will keep autistic students entertained and interested during your lessons. This is a good resource to include in between the bulk of your lessons as a “warm up” or “cool down.”
3. Tune Train
Tune Train is a music creation app for children that inspires creative thought processes. Students can learn about pitch, harmony, and rhythm by playing the games in the app and moving around different objects. This game provides a stress-free getaway from guitar lessons that could be overstimulating for students with ASD.
There are hundreds of options for online music learning websites and software. Rocksmith is an extremely fun one and one of my personal favorites. Rocksmith is a game played very similarly to Guitar Hero or Rockband. However, instead of a plastic guitar-shaped controller, you use an actual guitar. This is useful for guitar teachers teaching students with autism or attention deficit issues!
5. Music Tutor Sight Read
Music Tutor Sight Read is the best app for teaching guitar, piano, or bass students to read music. It is incredibly simple and easy to whip out and quiz your student on sight reading in the middle of a lesson. The free version has most of the basics you would need, but the paid version has more features, including key signature identification, notation, and more!
6. Simply Guitar
Simply Guitar is an excellent guitar learning app that provides users with a simple platform for learning many beginner exercises, chords, scales, techniques, and songs. As I mentioned before, visual learning is extremely helpful for autistic students, and Simply Guitar is a great visual resource to use when teaching guitar to a student with autism.
7. Guitar Tricks
Guitar Tricks is one of the most popular online guitar teaching platforms. While it is mainly aimed at self-taught guitarists, Guitar Tricks also contains a lengthy song library and plenty of beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitar methods. And the best part? You can easily make a free account and gain access to tons of useful content that can easily be used in guitar lessons.
8. Fender Play
Fender Play is another popular guitar learning resource for guitarists of all levels. The app contains a plethora of songs in tab and sheet music formats and lots of high-quality videos with helpful lessons. If your student shows a lot of interest in learning guitar and wants to continue learning and practicing while at home, this is an excellent app to recommend, as it contains a lot of good instruction and well-paced walkthroughs for playing guitar.
Best books for guitar teachers of autistic students
Here are some essential books to read if you will be teaching guitar to autistic students.
This bestselling book is aimed at teachers, social workers, therapists, doctors, and anyone who frequently interacts with an autistic child. This is an absolutely essential read for anyone teaching people with ASD, as it really helps to see things from a different perspective. Ellen Notbohn is an incredible author who has published several best-selling books and is an expert in autism.
This is a resource book for teachers that work with autistic students. The book cites many helpful studies, tactics, and information for effectively working with and understanding autistic children.
This is a very interesting book that comes from the music therapy side of autism. It goes over how music can stimulate an autistic person’s brain and help them develop social skills and communication. This book was written by Dorita Berger, a music teacher who has done extensive work with autistic students.
This book is targeted toward the parents of autistic students, but it is still a very helpful read for guitar teachers looking for some insight into teaching autistic students.
Best books for autistic guitar students
Music books are essential for any lesson. A music book is a great way to organize a lesson and give your guitar student a resource they can take home and practice with. For the most part, you can use the same books for autistic students as you would for any other guitar student. In the end, the theory and methods are the same. It is just your teaching approach that changes.u
For my top recommendations, check out my picks for the best beginner guitar books.
Skoog: The all-inclusive instrument
The Skoog is a musical instrument designed to be fully inclusive, meaning that it can be played by anyone, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. The instrument is particularly helpful for children with autism, as it provides a tactile sensory experience that allows them to engage with music in a way that may not be possible with traditional instruments.
The Skoog is incredibly easy to play. Simply touch, twist, or squeeze its soft, flexible surface, which makes various sounds and tones depending on how you interact with it.
This simplicity and versatility make it an ideal tool for music therapy and sensory integration programs. Music teachers and music therapists alike can customize the device using an app to meet the unique needs of each child. The device can also connect to iTunes, Apple Music, Garageband, or Spotify, so the options for customizing lessons with this device are endless.
It is a perfect sensory break tool for guitar lessons and the ideal musical instrument to spark an interest in people with ASD.
How to prepare autistic students for live performances
Live concerts and recitals are an integral part of any guitar curriculum. After all, what is all the practice and drilling for, if not to show off the skills of your students? Live performances can be difficult for any musician, let alone students with autism, as the stress of coming on stage can overwhelm your students. So, it is vital to prepare them for the experience so that playing in front of a crowd is not as nerve-wracking.
I recommend practicing the entire concert experience for a few lessons before the live performance. Doing so will help engrain the process into your student and create a routine that can be memorized. People with ASD do very well with a schedule, so this is a great way to ensure they are ready for the recital.
Practice everything from coming onto the stage, playing through the song, bowing, and walking off the stage. Give your student clear instructions, ask them questions to make sure they understand what to do, and of course, make sure they feel comfortable with everything. Your student may be more comfortable with special arrangements. For example, they may ask for you to sit with them on the stage while they play, or they may not want to face the audience.
If possible, accommodate your autistic student’s needs to ensure they are comfortable and confident playing a live concert.
Teaching guitar to students with autism can be a rewarding experience for both the teacher and student, but it requires patience, flexibility, and a willingness to adapt teaching strategies to meet individual needs.
If you have any more questions for me about teaching music or other music-related questions, feel free to reach out! I am always happy to help.
- Juliastamman.com Julia Stamman, LPC