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Autism and Violin lessons

December 21, 2012 at 9:15 AM

I am diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, and though it is at the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, that doesn't mean it doesn't affect me. 

I'm writing this blog to spread the awareness of some things that come with teaching students with autism and to receive feedback from teachers of autistic students or even autistic students themselves.

I am sure that it takes a world of patience to teach even a "normal" student. Teaching one with special needs requires a universe of patience.

1) Stubbornness
During my violin lessons, I sometimes refuse to play a piece at the speed it's supposed to be at. Though I know I could pull it off quite well, I am afraid my teacher would think it's funny if I made a mistake. I'm also afraid that my teacher would think I'm not good enough. 
I've recently learned how to play double stops. And I'm not very confident because of the intonations. Every time I come to a double stop in a piece, I would stop there and stare at it like it's poison. Slowly, I've been weaning myself off the habit. It take a lot of deep breaths, but it works.

2) Shyness
Sometimes, when I refuse to play a piece fast, it's because I'm shy to play for my teacher. As childish as that sounds, it's something that I've failed to overcome over the years. My right hand would just refuse to move the bow.

3) Pre lesson anxiety
Before my lessons, I'm always hit by anxiety attacks of varying degrees of severity. It could range from the regular sweaty palms to a mixture of freezing feet and hands, and a stomach ache. Of course these symptoms disappear once my teacher arrives, but it isn't something I would like to live my life with. 

4) Pessimism 
I'm currently learning vibrato. And my teacher is having a hard time teaching me too. Every time we start I would repeat the word "cannot" over and over. She would in turn, have to remind me more than a couple of times to keep quiet and just focus on doing the vibrato motion. This pessimistic streak carries on even until the end part of the lesson when we go through my theory homework. Every lesson, I would tell her that I found it difficult, though of course it wasn't very. Though I would get at least 95% of my answers correct, I would still tell her the same thing the next lesson.

It takes a lot of patience and reassurance to get me to cooperate. But at the end of the day, I'm sure it was worth it to my teacher to watch me progress so fast. 

What are your views?

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 21, 2012 at 1:39 PM
Lydia - although you have been diagnosed as having Asperger's, the problems you mention are ones that most of us who play violin and have taken lessons recognize to a greater or lesser extent. I certainly have been subject to some of the issues you identify. Addressing them in your case may require a bit extra in some areas as you develop strategies to counter whatever element the Asperger's might add. Keep trying and good luck!
From Lydia Tay
Posted on December 21, 2012 at 5:22 PM
Tom - I definitely cannot speak for all autistic students. As Aspergers is at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, the symptoms that appear would not be very severe.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on December 21, 2012 at 5:47 PM
Lydia what does it mean to have a condition that affects behavior when you have your very high level of self awareness and quite obvious intelligence?
From Allan Lewis
Posted on December 21, 2012 at 6:13 PM

You communicate perfectly from your computer keyboard.

Do you email your teacher after your lesson to tell her what you were having trouble saying? Or with others where you are not satisfied with how the conversation ended? Of course always be your polite and gentle self.


From Michael Pijoan
Posted on December 21, 2012 at 7:35 PM
I know a violinist with Asperger's syndrome and she is a fantastic player. To be honest with you I believe that feeling some pessimism about the development of vibrato is normal. It is often the case that vibrato doesn't sound like much of anything for a while, but once you get it you don't lose it. It's like riding a bicycle. The muscles involved are just not accustomed to operating in that way and they have to be diligently trained to perform that motion.
From Lydia Tay
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 2:41 AM
I do text my teacher and tell her my problems. However, she still doesn't know of any ways to help. I'm going to try persuading my mum to contact my psychologist for me, so things should get better.

I am VERY self conscious in front of my teacher. Even more than if I am in front of an audience.

Knowing that I'm diagnosed doesn't do me much good nor much harm. I still don't understand my own behaviours, which is why I'm asking for feedback and opinions here. :)

From Annika Kramer
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 5:21 AM
Sounds very very familiar....
From Danielle Martin
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 5:15 AM
I imagine your nervousness around your teacher is due to the fact that you want her to respect and possibly even like you. I also imagine your teacher does like you, but with Asperger's, it might be more difficult for you to tell precisely how much. Audiences are further away, both physically and emotionally, so why should your brain/emotions care as much?

You seem to be very capable of the intellectual process of learning music, and very capable of the physical process of playing violin as well. As someone who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, I totally have to work to keep the scary, ineffective emotions at bay when I practice. And trust me, those bad emotions never helped when I went to my lessons.

I'm not sure this will help you, but sometimes when I was particularly stressed out, I would start "acting." I have/had a persona that was me, but more confident and better able to focus on the positives than the negatives. It made the lessons go somewhat smoother, from my perspective, at least, although I had to spend some time recovering afterward.

Always try to remember to have *some* fun. Just because music is a challenge, it shouldn't always be hard work.

From Lydia Tay
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 6:53 AM
I have tried, but was unsuccessful in getting rid of the anxiety caused by the fact that my teacher IS THERE... When she is here, I just tremble so much that it sometimes becomes impossible to lift my bow
From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 1:40 PM
Lydia - you need to find a professional to help you develop a strategy to deal with the anxiety problem just mentioned. Surely, there are folks out there who treat people on the autism spectrum who could help you with this.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on December 22, 2012 at 3:06 PM
Lydia - you need to find a professional to help you develop a strategy to deal with the anxiety problem just mentioned.

Lydia - Tom is right.

My son has severe learning difficulties and classic autism and his cousins (on my side of the family) have AS.

So I realise that when fighting and struggling with your own innate stubborness, what you are doing - trying to develop a triple habit of pausing, slowing down racing thoughts (that make no sense whatsoever) and drawing slow breaths (it doesn't even have to be deep, just multiple slow breathing) is most helpful. Your teacher needs to understand AS so she will be silent and wait and not encourage/rush you to move on, with well, wordy and unhelpful intentions, when you experience these "stops" to regain control.

Over-pessimism or over the top hyper-optimism is also something those suffering from autism need time to handle so whatever you do, please do not judge yourself unkindly but strive to be nice and patient on and to Lydia Tay!

Having said that, Tom is right about the shyness and anxiety attacks. There IS effective professional help out there and you need to ask your mum/doctor for this support. Not so much as to "overcome" the shyness or panic attacks but the professional therapist have various coping mechanisms or practical strategies to help "you train yourself" in the longer term during trying moments to cope with them (bringing such attacks under [your] control with time)so they either would not, or seldom, spoil your enjoyment of what you do generally in your life - including violin.

Handling and controlling these attacks is a learning process that will take time so to begin, consider talking it through with your mum soon.

From Michele Medina
Posted on December 26, 2012 at 2:53 AM
Lydia, how old are you? I have a few ideas. You can also email me if you prefer.

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