What I’m learning from… Supporting a young person with autism and DCD (dyspraxia) in a mainstream full class setting

This work began to develop a single solution but has become so profoundly transformational for the student, and for others around them, it will be very much continued learning and I’ll share more as we go.

As part of developing my own understanding in this academic year, I’ve chosen to focus on the support I give to young people with autism and dyspraxia. When I listen to the music created by all my students, it always feels like a privilege to hear their work. Students who have had additional barriers to overcome, inspire me in a different way. I remember attending a percussion masterclass with Dame Evelyn Glennie at Keele University in the late 1980s and being deeply inspired by the effortless expression in her performance, despite her not being able to ‘hear’ in the same way as me.

From the many conversations I’ve had with my students with autism or dyspraxia so far, there is great similarity. The most important thing I’ve learned has been that the way these young people learn and create is just different. In every case, my role as the person privileged to support and encourage them is not to change who they are, or make them work in a particular way, but to help them to ‘find a way’ to control their music, to express themselves and to deepen their musical understanding.

I’ve recently met a student with both autism and dyspraxia, and this has led me to look again, as the combination of these in a practical music setting has greater challenge. As I’ve begun to read again around related subjects, I’ve found many projects and studies considering this, but most are in a one-off project or in a small group setting. In my context I need to think about solutions for these young people in a full mainstream, mixed ability class (of 30+ students).

My school has been running a CPD series to refresh our understanding of Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia. The autism training was with Denise Thomas and Carolyn Roberts from York City Council. Denise, who I’ve been fortunate to know for many years recounted an experience she had about 13 years ago when I was leading ‘Old McDonald had a farm’ in a singing lesson with Year 7. I was inviting the students to choose what we sang about in each verse. One of my autistic students shouted out “on his farm he had a barn door and it went bang bang!” She remembers being amused that I just went along with it, without challenging his creativity, and all the students sang about the barn door at the tops of their voices! It was so important to me for that young man to feel the freedom to share his creative thought, even though it was so different to the perspective others were focused on. I do remember the moment and remember him beaming as we sang his idea together, but I’d forgotten until Denise reminded me.

These are definitions of autism and dyspraxia. It is so important we do not consider these as illnesses to be cured – they are not! They are challenges that require a different way of thinking.

  • Developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia, is a condition affecting physical co-ordination. It causes a child to perform less well than expected in daily activities for their age, and appear to move clumsily.” (NHS England)
  • “Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. More than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.” (National Autistic Society) 

The session with Denise and Carolyn was timely indeed as I began to think more deeply around this. Here are some points and ideas I learned about working with children with autism:

  • Everything spoken is understood literally.
  • Context is difficult to understand
  • In collaborative work, they need to know their specific role in advance
  • It’s difficult to look and listen at the same time (remember, they are concentrating including when looking away)
  • Feelings, emotions and needs are often hidden at school – everything might appear normal, but they might be experiencing great anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Build-in downtime to encourage rest.
  • Balancing in space is hard
  • They like rules to follow, but sometimes there is difficulty in making specific choices or difficulty imagining
  • Meaning in text might not always be understood as the wrong word might appear stronger, changing the meaning
  • Allow time to process instructions
  • Use the same words when repeating an instruction, checking understanding continually
  • There is difficulty coping with change (in music, we have so many contrasts in realtime)
  • Time perception and organisation are greatly challenging too

My year 9s have been working on the Progression Tasks Project. This was originally designed as a fast-track course to help students to prepare for GCSE Music composition, but now we have our 1 hour of music, every week, I’ve tweaked the course to help absolutely everybody to write their own music and develop their understanding.

One of the key changes has been to breakdown the 40-task course into shorter units. PTP Part 1 (tasks 1-7) reconsiders pulse, timing and rhythm, including the structure and organisation of rhythm. Part 2 (tasks 8-13) reconsiders pitch, melodic movement, major keys with up to 4 sharps and 4 flats, including their construction in tones and semitones, the points of the scale with specific focus on the tonic and dominant, treble clef notation and then 4-bar and 8-bar melodic writing with further thought about structure. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve now separated the PTP parts with related performance challenges to allow students the opportunity to explore what they’ve learned more deeply and to prove understanding in different ways.

It has always been fascinating to teach the PTP as it’s like having 20-30 individual learning objectives all being considered in the same place at the same time. Everybody works calmly and at their pace, with time available for students who need more specific support. As students develop independence, which the course encourages, they can also ‘push-on’, without having to ever wait or pause their learning.

My student with autism/DCD found the work incredibly difficult in part 1 and did not appear to make much progress. However, the understanding was developing as now at the end of part 2, they have demonstrated calm, confident control of their music and in their class they are in the top 20%.

So why was part 1 difficult and what did we do differently? Task 1 is to tap in time to a metronome. It’s purpose is to help students to focus on the beat within the music as as a starting point for developing rhythm. For many students, this is so straightforward. It’s just like switching on their preferred streaming app and tapping along to the music. But for a student who, no matter how determined they are to try, doesn’t have the physical function to tap a regular pulse, the task created great anxiety.

I was introduced to reading about the condition Amusia through an excellent conversation with Dr Lily Law, specialist in music and psychology. It was something I hadn’t studied before and this conversation was pivotal in what I would do next. I’m constantly told when I invite colleagues to come and sing with us “I can’t sing” or “You really don’t want to hear my voice”. Inspired by the amazing George Bevan and his ‘Choir who can’t sing’, I’ve always believed that we can ‘find a way’ for everybody. However, my reading in Amusia so far has highlighted that some people have immovable barriers.

This has forced me into particularly deep thinking as I can’t deal with the idea of people being excluded from the joy of making music. It led me to this question: Is there a way to prove musical understanding through performance, but without physically performing? And the answer is yes! The answer is ‘technology’ – not as an end point but as a method to create an audible sensation that allows a student to feel musical ideas and concepts.

Another student I work with has a complex DCD condition, but without the extra considerations of autism. They play in my ensembles and have always found it difficult to play an entry in-time. In the last 2-3 months that students has cracked it! Having worked closely with them for some time, I asked what changed? They answered proudly “It’s just technique”, not only having proved understanding, but gained an awareness of how they’ve found a way. Technique in music from student’s perspective can often be limited to ‘can they play some scales’, but when a student truly understands how they’ve learned it has a profound and deeper meaning. It is very exciting!

In the last 6-7 years, iPads have absolutely revolutionised what is possible in my music classroom. I’ve shared more recently about the wonderful free Sibelius Mobile app and this has been part of the most recent solution. It took 10 minutes or so for my autism/DCD student to get to grips with the functions of the app, to be able to explore their ideas. Then followed a period of imagination and creation, which although so exciting to see, highlighted the evidence was still missing that would prove genuine control of musical understanding.

Inspired by the list of autism considerations above, I made a further change to the PTP. The whole concept of a ‘progression project’ was to enable students to break-down more complex concepts and deal with each part, one at a time. However, for students who took several weeks to complete the earlier tasks, they had forgotten about this thinking. Task 12 was our ambitious target for every year 9 student to reach by the end of this half term. To achieve this they must:

  • Compose an original 4-bar melody in any major key of up to 4 sharps or 4 flats, using two 2-bar phrases and ensuring the music sounds unfinished at the end of bar 2 and finished at the end of bar 4

In many ways this is a ‘list of rules’, but it is also a very complex question, requiring significant retrieval of different understanding all at once.

Two weeks ago, I created a re-scaffolded workflow for Task 12. A single 2-sided sheet that asked students to make musical choices at the right time to help them to build their 4-bar melody. The 2 sides are shown at the end of this post (together with the important ‘Choices sheet’ they needed). This is possibly the most impactful solution I’ve ever created and it’s so simple.

It has made it possible for 90% of students to successfully complete task 12 this term, including my autism/DCD student! The integration of the technology has supported the learning and students are now moving onto using advanced rhythmic devices and working in transposing keys.

The ultimate discovery happened 3 days ago. Having struggled so much with the seemingly impossible ‘tapping in time to a regular pulse’, this student can now accurately tap complex rhythms using dotted notes, syncopation and triplets with perfect timing, with their left hand, with right hand and with both hands together!! Now that is beyond amazing!

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