A Music Program For Autistic Kids That Has Nothing To Do With Therapy

Some children with autism have a special affinity for music. It seems to calm them down and give them an easier way to express themselves. So music therapy has become popular for many autistic kids. But one music program at the Boston Conservatory is specifically for kids with autism — and it has nothing to do with therapy.

Lindsey Melo, 12, plays violin at the Boston Conservatory while accompanied on guitar by her instructor, Kristy Foye. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Lindsey Melo, 12, plays violin at the Boston Conservatory while accompanied on guitar by her instructor, Kristy Foye. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

BOSTON — Gianna Hitsos is an eighth grader from Groton with an ambitious project: she’s making a CD of herself singing her favorite Broadway songs.

That’s a big deal for Gianna. Because when she was about one year old — just as she started saying words like “daddy” and “puppy” — she suddenly stopped talking. She didn’t talk again until she was almost three. The diagnosis was autism.

Now she gets private voice lessons at the Boston Conservatory on Saturdays during the school year. Other autistic kids in the same program study piano or guitar or violin. But they’re not here to learn to make eye contact or understand social cues or any of the other communication skills many kids with autism lack.

They attend to become better musicians. Period.

The program’s goal is to give autistic kids musical opportunities that could change their futures: Maybe playing in an orchestra, maybe performing in a band.

Studying The Same Music Skills They’d Learn In College

With a grad student from the conservatory as her teacher, Gianna learns technique, form, repertoire, theory, composition — the same skills she’d study as a music student in college. In fact, she now hopes she’ll go to college and study music, maybe right here at the conservatory. And that’s not her only goal.

“I feel like if I actually performed, and being able to take voice lessons, I can improve my singing skills and hopefully make it big,” Hitsos says.

If making it big is what these students want to do, that’s what their instructors try to help them do.

Autistic students in the Boston Conservatory program often write agendas for each class to satisfy their need for structure and order. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Now, kids with autism sometimes need a different teaching approach. Rhoda Bernard, who chairs the conservatory’s music education program, says autistic students often struggle with abstract concepts, including the idea that the musical alphabet only goes from A to G.

“One of students in the program last year had trouble,” Bernard recalls. “He wanted to go to H and keep going through the alphabet.”

So a teacher took a strip of construction paper, folded it into a circle, like a bracelet, and wrote the letters A through G. Then the student wore the bracelet on his wrist.

“So this child would then turn to the next letter, and after G it goes to A, so that this loop was very concrete,” Bernard explains, “and this was what unlocked the door to understanding the musical alphabet.”

With Autistic Kids, Talents Can Take Time To Shine Through

“For a lot of kids with autism, it takes a while for you to see their gifts,” adds Vanda Khadem, who runs the Autism Higher Education Foundation in Chestnut Hill. She suggested this program to the Boston Conservatory after hearing lots of stories about autistic kids showing a knack for music after years of developmental problems.

“There are so many other challenges they have in terms of communication and the sensory issues and the anxiety,” she says, “and so by the time they’re able to get it all together, you may not see an interest or a talent in a child with autism until they’re older.”

Before her Boston Conservatory voice lesson, Gianna Hitsos (right), 14, does stretches and warm-ups with her instructor, Sara Cathell-Williams. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Before her Boston Conservatory voice lesson, Gianna Hitsos (right), 14, does stretches and warm-ups with her instructor, Sara Cathell-Williams. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Lindsey Melo is a 12-year-old from Dartmouth who comes to her weekly lesson with her mother, Kelly. Students have to be at least nine years old to get into the program and have to have basic music proficiency already. Lindsey had been studying violin for more than a year when she signed up, but now she plays several styles of music, from classical to fiddle tunes to rock.

This is a child who didn’t speak until she was almost five and still has a lot of social issues. But when she plays the violin, Lindsey is poised and confident and expressive. That’s why her mother says the $1,000-a-semester price tag is worth it.

“Basic things, such as getting dressed, she couldn’t do,” Kelly Melo says. Yet “she picked up a violin and was able, as you see her fingers moving — it’s just amazing to think that this child, who had so many obstacles, has been able to pick up this instrument and play it.”

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  • http://www.originalpapercuts.com Leslie Miller

    This is just wonderful.
    I would hope there are scholarships or financial aid for students who don’t have the $1000.00. I wish there had been a program for some of my former students in grade school.
    It’s great to see somebody doing marvelous things like your program instead of just throwing these children to the wolves.

  • http://www.autismhangout.com Craig Evans

    Wow. Great program! More parents/caretakers and teachers of people on the spectrum need to know about it. Would you be interested in an interview for Autism Hangout (dotcom)?

    Autism Hangout Founder – Craig Evans

  • http://www.bostonconservatory.edu Rhoda Bernard

    Thanks for your comments. The program as it stands today is entirely tuition driven. We are currently raising funds for scholarships to help students and families who cannot afford the tuition. Any advice or thoughts about potential funding sources would be greatly appreciated.

  • http://www.jamminjenn.com Jenn Pacht-Goodman

    wonderful article; great program. I am a Music Therapist in NJ who funny enough went to The Boston Conservatory for Musical Theatre many moons ago. I think it is fantastic that these children are being exposed to music and gaining the knowledge to become musicians if they so choose. Awesome!

  • felix


    Came across your article when doing an internet search for music program for autistic children. Is currently looking  for a similar music program for my daughter. Any sources or recommendation for one in the country of Singapore? Greatly appreciate your advice!

  • Autism Pundit

    If you have a child with autism
    who enjoys music, should you do anything about it? Although many
    people would like to use music as therapy, as I’ve mentioned in previous
    posts, there is no data to support music as a treatment; however, music can be used as a great mainstreaming venue (and, in a few cases, a possible career choice).
    you have a child who appears to be musical, I would suggest that you
    teach him or her an instrument. The beauty of music is that it can be
    very reinforcing, repetitive and predictable. Our kids with autism can
    often outperform their typically developing peers if they have a modicum
    of talent.

    How to teach music? It is simple if you use
    behavioral techniques. If your child is in an intensive behavioral
    treatment program, learning the instrument becomes another program.
    Here are some techniques that I’ve observed (these techniques are all
    rooted in the literature on ABA, but applied to music). I would suggest
    that for a child with autism, the easiest instrument with which to
    begin is piano primarily because it is easy to create a pleasing sound
    from the instrument. Piano is relatively easy to teach through
    imitation exercises. In addition, reading music can be taught in much
    the same way as one would teach a child with autism to learn the
    alphabet; in this case, the flash cards have notes (and time signatures
    etc.) on them instead of letters. Discrete trial training and
    discrimination training are significantly relied upon in the beginning.
    In addition, backwards chaining is a good way to teach piano pieces,
    since many children with autism are taught to finish in order to earn
    the reinforcement. I recently learned that many musicians teach
    typically developing children using a backward chaining technique as
    The key to successfully
    teaching the child is finding a very open-minded piano teacher who is
    happy to work alongside an ABA therapist. Once the teacher gets over
    the fact that using abstract analogies does not work as a teaching tool
    for children with autism, the learning can begin! A flexible piano
    teacher will soon internalize the behavioral techniques applied to
    learning piano and the therapist will no longer need to attend lessons.
    At the beginning, the child may have difficulty following instructions.
    For example, a talented child with autism may have very firm ideas
    about how a given piece should end; however, the child will have to
    learn and accept that one must play the piece as it is written e.g.,
    Bach’s Minuet in G Major must end on G below middle C, rather than an
    octave above because that’s how Bach wrote the piece! Over time, the
    structure of music will help the child excel and the ability to play one
    instrument may often be generalized to other instruments.

    In addition to personal
    enjoyment, music also creates a socially acceptable, group leisure
    activity. From playing an instrument, to playing and modifying music
    tracks on a computer using an attached piano keyboard, ‘MIDI’ interface
    and composition software, the potential for leisure activities is high.
    In addition, through music the child can participate in structured
    activities with other children including school bands and orchestras.

    like to suggest that working on an innate strength, as well as all the
    autism related deficits, is a very good idea. Music not only establishes
    the child’s competence amongst his or her peers, it also can provide
    much happiness to the child with autism. In the rare case where the
    child has perfect pitch, this ability may, additionally, have employment
    potential (in terms of musical transcription).

    Some thoughts about when to start: make sure the child has mastered simple imitation skills, is somewhat compliant and seems to enjoy
    music. In addition, some would argue that it is not a good idea to
    teach the child to read music until the child has mastered reading
    (decoding) his/her mother tongue.

    Good luck on this project, and enjoy the music!

    • Nur

      Hello Skfreeman, I need to ask you some advice for my 11 years old autistic boy. Could you please send me a email where we can contact you. My email is afardow@gmail.com

  • Giselleann83

    hi, my name is Giselle. I’m a sped teacher in the Philippines. I have a pupil who have autism. She is very good in music. I taught her some basic guitar chords about 2 yrs ago and now she plays it really well. She strums and pluck the guitar superbly. My only concern is that there is only little opportunity for her to display her talent here in our country. I hope that she will be able to showcase her talent internationally. Thank you!

    • Skfreeman

      Hi Giselle,
      That’s great!   Here are some ideas:  1) teach her to read music well (using flash cards and discrete trial training); 2)  I would try to get her to play with others in a small ensemble so that she learns to listen to others to coordinate the playing; 3) once she becomes good at that, then I would attempt to mainstream her with a larger group of students in the school system; 4) I would grab every opportunity in the school system for her to learn more about music; 5) once she is at a certain level, then get her in a community orchestra/band/group.

      The idea here is to develop her talents so that she can out compete typically developing peers.  At that point you have a better chance that she will be able to showcase her talent.  The key, though, is to squeeze out every bit of potential in music that she possesses; then you will have an easier time having her accepted.  If she is very talented, people will start looking at her as an asset rather than a liability (which unfortunately happens to often).
      Good luck!  Hopefully, I will see her one day on a youtube video that has gone viral!

  • Nur

    I am a mother of 11 years old boy with Autism. He is been studying piano lesson for 5 years. He is good and learns fast. I have created a facebook page here in italy that has mission to encourage families and teachers to offer music training to autistic kids. My didnt have any talent when he started music lesssons, and he did learn well. Could you share with me programms and some more details how i can impove my mission in this subject?

    Nur italy Milano

  • http://www.facebook.com/christopher.brooks.311 Christopher Brooks

    I am a violin teacher with decades of experience teaching,  and a very personalized approach to each student. From what I have read about autism, it makes sense that some autistic children might really benefit from studying the violin. Anybody with more information (or who knows a student in Central PA who might benefit), please contact me at cbrooks@orpheus-acoustics.com

  • Nychole Kalka

    So, I’m a high school student looking forward to graduation. I am doing a career PowerPoint about a career I am interested in… I want to be a music teacher for children with autism… What is the best path to get where I want to be? Schools? Degrees? Anything…

    • Sabrina Freeman

      If you want to be the most effective teacher for children with autism, I strongly suggest that you get training in an area called “Applied Behavior Analysis.” In addition, you could join a treatment team and get great on the job training. Every community has these treatment teams set up for children with autism. The key is finding a high quality team to join. I’m not sure where you live, so I can’t recommend a specific parent group; however, if you google “Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention” and your town, you will probably find a parent group which has many treatment teams set up. Once you become proficient in the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis through participating in a treatment team, you will easily be able to teach music, or anything else a child with autism needs. If you were to go to university to learn ABA, you would need to first get a B.A. in Psychology and then do a M.A. in Psychology in a program that specializes in Applied Behavioral Analysis. I hope that helps! Sabrina

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