Please read this first paragraph carefully. I am writing about an experience I had giving a first lesson with a young autistic boy, but I am *in no way* criticizing autistic people, their parents, or trying to diminish or ridicule their struggles. I have successfully taught several autistic students and even earned the title of their “favorite teacher.” I know many autistic individuals personally, some in my own family, and I believe that if I was a kid there’s a good chance I would be diagnosed. I have absolutely nothing against autistic people.
A mother contacted me to have a first, trial lesson with her 9-year old son who is autistic. He was interested in piano, but she anticipated that things would go probably need to go very slow. I agreed to give it a shot. I’ve taught several autistic children successfully, though I am not a specialist nor do I have specific training in teaching children with special needs. I wasn’t particularly concerned. After teaching for over 25 years and raising my own children, I am confident I know when a child has had enough, autistic or not.
Looking back, I didn’t ask enough questions, nor did the mother offer me enough information. I should have asked for the definition of “slow”. I had assumed slow to be a matter of comprehension, but I think it should have been defined as “how much lesson he can take at once.” Perhaps the first lesson needed to be a 5-minute meet-and-greet, see the teacher, learn her name. Maybe during the second lesson we’d spend ten minutes together, and gradually build up the length of time over a period of weeks or months. We should also have agreed on how and when to cut lessons short and discussed payment for a short lesson.
When I first met this boy, I introduced myself and asked him his name. He balked, so I asked him, “Do you not want to tell me your name?” He shook his head, and I said, “That’s OK.” I brought him over to the piano and did what I normally do, showing what the insides of the piano look like and some general things about how the piano works. He responded well, explored the pedal and even asked some questions. I was already wondering what “slow” meant since the first five minutes (at least) went just about the same as most other first lessons I have ever given.
After a bit, we sat down at the keyboard and I explained the groupings of black and white keys and had him find them. At this point, I did need to adjust my explanations and questions a bit so he could understand, but things went pretty well. He played what I asked and seemed to comprehend. Again, I was wondering what “slow” meant. So far, things were not going slow.
That is when we began to have problems. The boy began lifting the keys on the piano. Every kid lifts the keys of the piano. I have another student, a six year old boy, who recently did this during a lesson. I remember well lifting the keys myself as a kid. There is something interesting about it – look, the keys do this! It is weird and curious, and the keys make a thumping sound when you lift and release them quickly. In ignorance, it is fun to keep doing. It is just bad for the piano.
When I asked the six year old to stop because he could damage the piano, he immediately stopped. He may need a reminder from time to time, as all kids do, but he stopped. Unfortunately, the autistic boy did not. I asked him about six or seven times to stop lifting the keys and told him he could break the piano. He just looked at me and then kept doing it. Inside, I started to panic a little. On one hand, I get it. I remember being a kid, and I understand the fascination and the repetition. *I really do.* I knew a lot of this was normal. Lifting the keys is normal for all kids, and the repetition is normal for autistic people. BUT – and this is a big but – I couldn’t allow it to continue because it could damage the piano – MY piano!
At that point, I closed the lid down over the keys. I knew a battle of wills was coming, so I held the lid down with my arm. I was right. The boy immediately began trying to pull the lid up off the keys so he could could go back to lifting them. I told him that I could not allow him to lift the keys and hurt my piano, and that I was not going to raise the lid until he was ready to not lift the keys. After a few minutes, he must have realized I wasn’t going to budge and seemed to settle down. So, I raised the cover so we could try again to proceed in the lesson, but he went right back to lifting the keys. At this point, I decided the lesson was over even though there were ten minutes remaining in the allotted time. I couldn’t risk damage to my piano.
I called over his mother, who had been in the room. I went over things the boy could do at home, but also explained that he cannot lift the keys and why. She said she heard everything. I wondered to myself why she hadn’t intervened. At that point, I felt a bit like I had been set up or at least stranded. We scheduled a lesson for the following week, but she later emailed me to say she didn’t think her son should take lessons.
That’s too bad. After a couple of days of thinking, I had come up with some ideas. The first was to limit lessons to 15 minutes for a while. The second was, that if she was willing to pay the extra cost, I could give the lessons at their home. Perhaps the boy would have felt more comfortable there, and if any damage was done it would be to their piano, not mine. The third was to make sure he had some kind of stim toy that he could use instead of using the piano. However, I didn’t get a chance to present my ideas.
I have taught students with all kinds of special needs: some with autism, some with ADHD, some with dyslexia, some with crippling anxiety. Sometimes parents don’t tell me about these difficulties ahead of time, and that never goes well. In every one of these situations, students need some modifications, either in the way material is presented or in the way “performance” is assessed, or both. Not only is it helpful to know ahead of time that a student has special needs, it is also important to be told what is already known to be helpful. I did not ask the mother of this boy enough questions, nor did she provide enough information. I believe that had these things been discussed in greater detail, we would have had a better plan for a first lesson and a more successful outcome.