Any experience with autistic violin learners?

January 26, 2019, 3:42 AM · Hello everyone,
I was wondering if any of you had experience in teaching an autistic student, especially an adult one, to play violin. The point is that I am an autistic adult trying to learn the violin and am failing miserably. I just feel like it is impossible to actually make me feel comfortable in lessons. What happens is:
1. Traffic is noisy. If the lesson is quite far from home without mostly consisting of nature-like bycicle paths or parks leading me there I'm already quite done for the day by getting there and coming home.
2.Loud music instruments from other rooms confuse me and make me unable to focus.
3. Cluttery environments also tend to confuse me a bit.
4. Verbal instructions on how to move aren't really my thing. They have confused me in sport lessons and still do now. I need to see what you mean, because otherwise I most likely can't tell and will have to randomly guess.
5. I'm also not great with people touching me without warning. I usually can tell beforehand by the movements people make, but if I am stressed trying to guess what you do is really too much for me.
6. I'm kinda bad at figuring out what people want me to say. Trying to understand the social aspect of communication while at the same time trying to figure out the violin is a bit much for me.
7. I'm constantly scared to experience a shutdown in my lesson. Not only would that creep my teacher out but I would have paid for the lesson without really learning anything in most of the lessons time.

There you have it. I do like to learn the violin, but I can't really do it if I would need a day off just to get over the stress it is causing me. My sensory overwhelm is already bad in everyday life, so I can't afford a hobby that is causing me so much stress. Does anyone have experience on how that could work out? Did anyone work with an autistic person in lessons? What did you do to make it easier? Or are there even any autistic people here who could talk from experience?

Replies (21)

Edited: January 26, 2019, 5:19 AM · I feel (rather than know..) that the teacher has to know exactly what you have told us, which you express so clearly.

How about a lesson with no speaking?
Starting with eyes shut, and deep, slow breathing.
With the teacher by your side rather than facing you, facing a blank wall, giving slow, clear demonstrations.
Perhaps muted violins? And short, clear written suggestions.

Edited: January 26, 2019, 5:28 AM · What you wrote here is useful for any teacher to know.

I have a son on the spectrum, and all this sounds familiar. Some of the remedies you have probably tried already, but...
for the trip to and from, are you driving? If not, think about ear plugs or safety headphones. Depending on the environment, noise-canceling headphones. Maybe sunglasses? Also, do you have something that will soothe or distract? There were times when my son had a lot of trouble getting to school in our car, but comforting his mother’s dog helped a lot.

The loud instruments next door is a problem I don’t know how to solve. And room clutter is hard to predict, unless you choose the right teacher.

The rest comes down to teaching style, which some can adjust when they know what you need. I once took a golf lesson with a very good club pro, and he first asked if I was better at verbal or spatial thinking. Hadn’t thought about that in the context of learning, so I paused for a minute. My dad then told the guy I played the violin, and he understood what to do. Within a few minutes he had me hitting decent shots with a 6 iron. Not easy to do right off.

So, show what you wrote to a teacher or a school that will place you with a teacher.

And, yes— consider using a practice mute. There will be a lot of complex noise under your ear.

January 26, 2019, 5:31 AM · Hello Adrian,
Thank you for your answer. Yes, I believe so, too, but I still didn't really find the courage to tell my old teacher after dropping out without a word. He is definitely an overall great teacher but the lessons massively overwhelmed me because he didn't give clear instructions.I also didn't yet find another teacher for who I wouldn't need to cycle through the city for and who would be o.k. with a trial lesson (I know three other music schools of which two are in a place where I wouldn't manage to cycle to every week and one doesn't seem to offer trial lessons.)
January 26, 2019, 5:52 AM · Dear Stephen,
Thank you for your answer. It really makes me calmer to know that others are experiencing this as well and that there are teachers who do care to help with differences in learing.

I do not own a car and unfortunately, my touch and my smell are my most sensitive senses. I can barely wear a cap without my glasses pressing onto my head so much that it hurts, that's why it's really hard to find any headphones/ear plugs etc. I am already trying to find good ear plugs and headphones but it will need a bit of time to find anything that does not hurt. I usually travel by bike and am afraid that if I don't hear anything, it might be really dangerous. A place that I could walk to would be great, but that's hard to find. Buses are way to unreliable to get anywhere in time if you don't plan to be way too early.

I actually really like the sound of my violin, that one is actually not that bad. Just focusing on that sound actually calms me a lot. Loving how my violin smells, vibrates and sounds is really what makes me want to play in the first place :).

January 26, 2019, 7:28 AM · Can you find a teacher who can come to your home? That might solve a number of your problems.
January 26, 2019, 7:33 AM · Aa a teacher, I think the most helpful thing you could do when approaching a new teacher would be to include the above list in your initial communication with them (probably in an e-mail). I personally couldn't do too much about number 2 (except maybe put you in an earlier or later time than average, when other teachers are less likely to be teaching or schedule you on a day when I am in a room surrounded by quieter instruments), but I would do my best to accommodate all other requests which are, in my opinion, very reasonable. In fact, I wish more students were able to communicate how they learn best as clearly as you do. If you know what a student prefers, it shouldn't be too difficult to demonstrate more rather than explain verbally and to always ask before touching a student (should be the norm for at least the first few weeks regardless of the student anyway).
Edited: January 26, 2019, 8:15 AM · It could possibly be easier in the beginning to have a few starter lessons by skype or video exchange to ease you into it. It might be especially useful if you have a teacher who would be open to doing some skype lessons initially with you maybe working in to some in person lessons as the teacher gets to know you better and understand what is and isn't helpful for you.
January 26, 2019, 12:45 PM · Maybe you could use an electric violin. That'll be less sound under your ear because most of it will be coming out of an amplifier and you can adjust the volume and the "tone", or even play through headphones and then all the noises around you will be minimized. This is the great thing about a digital piano as well.
January 26, 2019, 1:23 PM · Jude,

I have no experience as a teacher, but I had played with an autistic music friend, so let me chime in....
You have already stated a few issues and to me they appear to belong to roughly 2 groups:
1. interpersonal challenges often experienced by people with autism
2. instrument-related specific challenges

While I can not write about # 1, I would invite you to explore other, less difficult / demanding, but also equally or even more pleasing to you. Guitar, viola da gamba, to name just a few.

January 26, 2019, 1:54 PM · Dear Tom,
Unfortunately, as I am an university student in a big city, I don't have an accomodation that is well- suited for lessons.

Dear Ingrid,
I am pleased to hear that this wouldn't be an issue for you. I hope I will find someone like that in my area.

Dear Karen,
That's an interesting idea, I will keep that in mind.

Dear Paul,
As I said I don't have issues with my violin being loud because I love the sound of it next to my ear, rather I mostly have issues with the traffic noises on the way.

Dear Rocky,
I unfortunately do not really like the sound of the classic guitar and wish to be able to play classic as well. The only instrument except violin that I would really love to play is the harp, which brings a lot of problems because it is really expensive, there aren't a lot of teachers and I don't really have any space for it in my current accomodation. I would love to play something less difficult but I just don't want to play an instrument I do not love.

Thank you for your answers!

January 26, 2019, 5:35 PM · Have you spoken with anybody at your University? Perhaps someone in the music department, if available can assist? You maybe able to find a teacher there or meet with a teacher after one of your classes in a quiet and distraction free area.

I hope things work out for you and you are able to solve these logistics.

January 26, 2019, 5:50 PM · Hello Timothy,
I have not, I am not particularly close to the music department conserning the topics I study and I do not know anyone there, so I wouldn't really know who to ask. Who could know any of these things?
Best wishes.
January 26, 2019, 6:03 PM · Perhaps ask your Dean of Students? I remember the one at my University was very helpful with all sorts of things. You could always send an email if appearing in person is not convenient.
Edited: January 26, 2019, 8:07 PM · Hi Jude; I can sympathize. Does the sound of harp remind you of pineapple?
January 26, 2019, 8:20 PM · This is definitely something that's not been fully explored on the teacher training end! I fully second the suggestions to look in to Skype or in home lessons if you're in sensory overload. Also make sure your current teacher knows about your preferences.

I know this sounds a bit strange, but a music ed masters student looking for a thesis is definitely looking for you!! Email the music ed and special ed professors at the college/university near you.

January 27, 2019, 3:12 AM · Jude, I will say communicate with your teacher about this and see if he/she can do something to accommodate it. Then you can find out what role you can play with this process.

Personally, I told my teachers that non-specific/imagery instruction works very poorly on me. Unfortunately, even I was very upfront about this, a lot of teacher just doesn't get it. It is only recently I (finally) have one teacher who comes to term that I takes her words very literally. As a result, she changes her instruction to which muscle or what action, not "imagine this sound", "feels like" or "shape the phase as if". I think normal people do not learn this way, as a result, I need to give very specific feedback to my teacher on what I think she means, what exact did I try and what is the outcome, so she can know what is working/not working.

In my orchestra, I volunteer to help the conductor carry equipment and it takes up my break time. So there is no time for small talk or interacting with people. We also have a 30 min lunch/tea break. At that time I just go into a practice room. I do interact with other people, but I pick the day I feel like I am up for it. It is not going to be every week.

January 27, 2019, 5:32 AM · Dear John,
No, and as I don't really like pineapples I wouldn't want that to happen. But the harp has a very pleasing, gentle sound that makes me feel up.

Dear Julie,
I did not think about this. I'm still in between finding this an excellent way to help the special ed department while as well receiving lessons that are actually helpful, thus feeling happy I can help others on the spectrum, and feeling like a pet project. I might need a bit of time to think about it.

Hello Sivrit,
Thank you a lot for telling your experience. I do have a bit of a feeling that my old teacher won't really give very concrete instructions as well, unfortunately I feel like this isn't really his teaching style. He seems more into letting the other person explore, which I just can't if he is around. I feel you. While I do use metaphors as well and find sound hard to describe in concrete terms, as music speaks to me on an abstract and emotional level, people just have different imagination. So if I was told to imagine a sound like this I mwill probably not get it the way the other person imagines it. Especially, I would need a lot of other information on the person that imagined it, really all the background info, because otherwise it will not make any sense of the suggestion. I mean, in the end, the person does not want me to play what I imagine at this kind of image, but what she imagines, and this is really difficult for me because I have to put myself in the other persons shoes.

January 27, 2019, 6:56 AM · I do like Julie’s suggestions. At a minimum, Skype will ease the hassles of the commute, as well open up options on teachers beyond your immediate neighborhood.
January 28, 2019, 10:31 AM · Hi Jude,

Regarding ear plugs, I haven't tried these, but you can go to an audiologist and have them mold an ear plug to your ear. I've heard they are pretty comfortable. That might be a better option, although it is a few hundred dollars.

January 28, 2019, 3:48 PM · This thread restores my faith in humanity!
Edited: January 28, 2019, 11:49 PM · I wonder if a teacher used to working with younger children might be helpful for you? A lot of this is similar to the challenges I face working with <10 students on guitar.

Abstract and complicated verbal instructions don't really work with young children, so they might have well developed pedagogy strategies to work around that. They might also be more comfortable and used to making physical corrections instead of just describing corrections and sounds.

In fact, there is a good chance that if they have a large enough pool of students that they have worked with autistic students (albeit children) before and might have a more intimate understanding of the additional challenges you face in learning an instrument.

A good teacher ought to be able to adapt their material to make it applicable and interesting to an adult student.

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