This post is not written from a professional perspective. It is the shared experiences of Liz, a mother who is also a singing leader, who has a son with ASD and who was generous enough to share her observations and knowledge.
Autism spectrum disorder, (ASD) is the term used to describe a group of disorders in brain development that includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder (also known as atypical autism). The word ‘spectrum’ is used to reflect the range and varying degrees in the severity levels of symptoms found in individuals with ASD. These typically present as difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviours, to varying degrees. Autism is the most commonly occurring form of ASD.
Any group of people coming together for an activity will comprise a glorious melting pot of personalities, stories, challenges and needs, many of which are neither visible nor immediately apparent at first glance.
Many of the tips and strategies outlined below are unlikely to be entirely new to many experienced leaders, but it’s always good to be reminded of them.
Liz feels “we don’t need to ‘specialise’ or become experts to lead a positive singing experience for someone with ASD.” To varying degrees with autism, sensitivities are more magnified and social behaviour that is unconsciously expected in our society does not come naturally.
One of the great things that I have learnt from my experience with my son is to look more closely at each individual’s perspective and story, rather than the more collective, often unquestioned, expectations of our society.”
However, there are many practical approaches you can easily incorporate into your practice as a music group leader that will help increase the pleasure of participation for a person with ASD, and put everyone at ease within the group, too.
For Liz, whose son has high functioning Asperger’s, the initial challenge in encouraging him to sing was to find a group open to all ages that welcomed the two of them at a time of the day suitable for them both. This pursuit led to Liz hearing about Community Music Victoria and attending a Gippsland Singers Network weekend at Wilson’s Prom. It was there she was first introduced to the fully inclusive concept of Vocal Nosh. It felt a perfect fit for both Liz and her son. That weekend, as always, the Vocal Nosh model was open, it was relaxed and there were no rules to be followed or broken. This created an immediate sense of ease, and if Liz’s son didn’t want to sing a particular song then he could opt out, and join back in for the next one.
“It’s awesome to be able to provide an activity that reduces the anxiety of restriction that is common with the experience of living on the spectrum.
My son enjoys a Vocal Nosh because he doesn’t have to stand anywhere in particular, he is singing with me and I’m having fun and is relaxed and so he reflects this.”
Full of inspiration, Liz returned home and decided to set up a singing group of her own, run along the lines of a Vocal Nosh and open to singers of all ages and abilities, with support from CMVic mentors and catalysts Margaret Crichton and Kass Mulvany.
As well as Liz’s son, a second young person with ASD joined the group. Liz found that having a relaxed approach was key, and also that it was essential not to take offence if somebody turned around and said ‘I don’t like that song’.
Emotion recognition needs to be learnt by a person with ASD. ASD causes difficulty in decoding nuances or facial expressions and the unspoken rules in life – of which there are so many – don’t apply to somebody with ASD in the same way. This can make others around them feel ill at ease if something is said in an overly blunt way, something which can be challenging in a group context.
Liz recommends ‘Don’t be offended by pickiness or bluntness. Keep an open mind and continue to learn about the human condition. Lead by example to the rest of the group by reacting to any bluntness directed your way with a relaxed attitude, and go with the flow.
For example, some people may find it uncomfortable if the unspoken gets said. A person might say they are bored or that a particular song is boring, causing other people to feel horrified that this sentiment was verbalised. And then there’s that awkward silence that ensues…
Liz also recommends that singing leaders take particular care to be clear with their instructions and their signals when teaching a song.
“Sometimes these won’t be understood by a person with ASD, so explain first what your hand signals mean.”
Many people with ASD will find socialising an anxiety provoking activity because of the literalness with which they interpret situations and coding around them. A wink for example, doesn’t convey a double meaning or cheeky intent, it means ‘that person has something in their eye.’
This heightened sense of anxiety should always be considered and Liz also recommends that changes to a routine are best avoided or made slowly when considering the needs of someone with ASD. For this reason, it is important to say to everyone ‘you are so welcome here’ and emphasise the point that they can do whatever they need to, in order to be comfortable.
“I tell them, if you want to sit down, that’s fine..sit down and sing if it works.”
Once a person with ASD feels familiar with a setting and with other members of the group, everything is usually fine.
One conversation Liz always avoids is the one which starts, “this is so and so and they have autism… you just can’t do that.“ Instead, an exercise she feels may help leaders before a session, is to think up some positive ways to respond to some of the typical situations that may arise.
“Let’s face it, life’s amazing and wonderful tapestry of personalities can bring challenges in facilitating any singing/music group, so this will not be a new strategy.”
Liz’s son gets a lot of comfort from music and a lot of fun too. Liz believes that getting autistic kids involved in music from an early age trains their brains to react to dopamine in a positive way, boosting their mood and sense of worth, as it does for us all. For adults with ASD who enjoy participatory music making, it can be particularly beneficial. Belonging to a singing group can help prevent any feelings of social isolation which may occur as the result of difficulty in easily maintaining stable social connections.
“If you meet the brain’s demands for dopamine with a healthy thing, then you don’t need to meet that demand with an unhealthy thing… Let’s get the whole world singing.”
Advice for group leaders working with people with ASD, based on Liz’s experience and observations:
- Be clear with your directions
- Be welcoming
- Be sensitive to whether somebody has struggled to be present in the group on that day and whether they’re feeling uncomfortable or awkward
- Tread carefully with body contact in warm ups or particular songs, depending on the person
- Be prepared for bluntness and don’t be offended by it, and absorb it on behalf of the other group members
- If you’re going to change something in the process or course of the group, explain those changes clearly and give advance warning that the changes will happen, where possible the week before. Send a message to the person it will affect most, ahead of time
- Be aware that for some people with ASD, participation in your group may be their only experience of trying something social and you want it to be positive!
- And finally, expect the unexpected.
For further information and to access advice about Autism Spectrum Disorder, visit AMAZE: www.amaze.org.au
1: Australian Psychology Society: Understanding and managing Autism Spectrum Disorder
2: Autism Speaks: What is autism?
Article written by Deb Carveth with Liz for Community Music Victoria