by Dr Jessica Cawley, Researcher, Creative Tradition Provider, Musician Educator
In her research, Jessie documents the process as a musician educator of starting new music classes for Autistic children. These detailed notes and case studies are available on application to Music Generation Cork City for individual reference, but for the sake of this report only excerpts are featured.
Jessie explores teaching strategies and how to make traditional music more inclusive – both in special Autistic classes, mainstream education, and community contexts.
Her work focused on the teaching process involved, rather than gathering specific data on the children and young people participating.
Note on language:
For brevity, Jessie refers to Autism or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), using person-first terminology (students with ASD) rather than identity-first (Autistic students), acknowledging that many Autistic people prefer identity-first terminology.
Jessie’s reflective document covers the new music classes hosted for children with Autism in three primary schools, Scoil Íosagáin Boys NS, Farranree, South Lee Educate Together, Ballyphehane and St Mary’s on the Hill, Knocknaheeny. Documentation began in September 2021. This work was funded through Toy Show Appeal Funds and an Agility Award granted to support this work by the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.
Scoil Íosagáin Boys National School is an all-boys Deis school located in Farranree in the northside of Cork City. The school has worked with Creative Tradition since its pilot programme in 2017 (ensemble work for voice and guitar initially). The school programme expanded in 2019 to include fiddle, bodhrán, guitar classes, and a smaller grúpa cheoil ensemble. Pre-pandemic, Creative Tradition taught students with Autism in mainstream tin whistle classes (based in their main classroom setting, with the primary school teachers present).
With over 300 pupils, the school has a dedicated sensory room, and 3 ASD units. As per Department of Education guidelines, the ASD units in the school includes 6 students, 1 teacher and 2 Special Needs Assistants (hereon referred to as SNAs). Their 3 ASD units are made up of 6 Junior infants students (ages 4- 5), 5 senior infants (ages 5-6), and 6 senior boys (ages 8-11). Several boys in the junior infants unit do not use spoken language (Jessie uses the term ‘non-speaking’ in preference to ‘non-verbal’ – children with ASD are often very verbal, while not using spoken language).
All 10 of the boys in the senior ASD units are verbal.
South Lee Educate Together (SLET) is a newly formed co-educational, non-denominational primary school. In the school’s very first month in September 2019, Creative Tradition partnered with SLET to create a holistic, traditional music programme. In the beginning, the school comprised of 1 teacher, 1 principal and 8 junior infant students. The programme was effectively an early years traditional music programme. Since then, the school has grown to over 50 children (ages 4-7 in infants and 1st class), and has its own dedicated sensory room and ASD unit.
From September 2019 until June 2021, Jessie taught students with Autism in mainstream tin whistle/singing classes (based in their main classroom setting, with the primary school teachers present). SLET has one dedicated ASD unit of 6 students; 5 of which are in senior infants and one is in 1st class. There are an additional 3-4 students with ASD in mainstream classes only (and so the small school has 4 teachers and 4-5 SNAs).
Creative Tradition (CT), MGCC and St Mary’s on the Hill National School have partnered together since 2013 to deliver traditional music education to hundreds of primary school students. With three Musician Educators onsite, CT teaches over 300 students from junior infants up through 6th class (primarily tin whistle, singing instruction, composing, arranging, and ensembles). Children in St Mary’s also access CT’s Club Ceoil Knocknaheeny to learn other traditional instruments and join traditional choirs and grúpaí cheoil.
(Club Ceoil is a community-based, afterschool club which also caters teenagers and adults).
St Mary’s on the Hill National School is a large, co-educational primary school. They have 2 dedicated ASD units 1 junior and 1 senior class (made up of the standard 2 SNAs, 1 teacher and 6 students).
They have an additional unit for 8 students with mild to general learning difficulties (MGLD).4 of these students are Travellers.
Since the very beginning, CT has taught students with ASD in our mainstream music classes with the help of their SNAs and teachers. Some students with ASD only occasionally participated in music classes. In these cases, students purposefully withdrew from the class to self-regulate. For example, one student wore headphones for portions of the class and a few students missed music completely since they are taken out for learning support. In addition to inclusion in mainstream classes, CT also creates smaller groups for students who need extra support and/or a less noisy environment in which to learn.
After finding a little more about the students, Jessie created a timetable that suited each school.
Scoil Íosagáin opted for whole group classes for each of their 3 units (comprised of 6 students, 2 SNAs and 1 teacher).
Both the junior and senior infants ASD classes last about 25 minutes to suit attention span.
The Senior Boys’ ASD class in Scoil Íosagáin have a 30-35 minute music lesson each week.
South Lee Educate Together opted for a more individual approach since the students needed special attention. Students were taken out of their unit and seen 1-to-1 or for 2-to-1 lessons for 10 minutes. The brevity was a challenge, but it was necessary to meet the students in a private quiet atmosphere considering some of their sensory needs.
St Mary’s on the Hill – CT provided a music programme for the ASD unit, more suited to students who found mainstream education overwhelming. CT completed meetings with the school in November to re-establish music-making for 6th class and for students with Autism and Mild/General Learning Difficulties (MGLD) restarted music classes again in St Mary’s on the Hill in late January 2022 and teaches in 2 ASD units.
With the timetable complete, Jessie started planning the music classes, including medium term goals for the term and weekly plans for each class. She gathered repertoire and activities to help to support the students’ goals.
Goals for the infants ASD classes were simple, and included (1) being ok and safe with a stranger entering the classroom and making noise, (2) saying hello and goodbye, (3) making eye contact, (4) listening and sharing various music instruments, (5) turn taking, (6) explore loud/quite, high/low, fast/slow sounds, (7) exploring textures and feel of instruments, (8) feeling beats individually and in groups.
Jessie used a lesson plan template to help herself to plan, organise and document the ASD lesson plans. She printed out these templates and handwrote plans to use week after week.
Once in the classroom, she would habitually aim to focus solely on the young people themselves. Rather than looking at the plan, she memorised it and her intentions for the class.
Even though she had a plan, she always would ‘read the room’. So, if the students needed a calming or more exciting activity at one point, she might change the plan slightly in the moment.
Once class had ended, she would say goodbye and exit the room. She would usually then jot down some bullet points on the lesson plan to explore later on, noting quickly what worked, what needed changing, and observations about the students’ reactions to the musical activities.
The class teachers/SNAs would often comment about various things during and after the music classes, Jessie would write as much as possible down (writing only for about 1-2 minutes or so), before moving on. She also occasionally recorded voice notes about her impressions of the session to save time. Either way, she used bullet points or voice recordings to remind herself of the session, elaborating later when there was time to do so.
Jessie felt that she really benefited from teaching ASD units in 3 different schools, as she could compare the same song or activity with various children, quickly realising that one music activity can be engaging and effective in one ASD unit but may completely flounder in another.
She tried various songs and activities with the senior infants in both schools, and sometimes it went well, and other times it did. So, age wasn’t a factor, but variables including the students’ personalities, relationships with the classrooms, interests, needs, and mood had a bearing on what they engaged with on the day.
Jessie notes that if she hadn’t been teaching in more than one school, she might not have noticed this and may have overgeneralised that an activity just didn’t work well with that age group or Autistic students (when in fact maybe it didn’t work with that specific group).
Jessie describes some of the activities that she used in these sessions, including the Name Bag (inspired by Dr Thomas Johnston) where students choose to whisper, sing, shout, or call out their name in whichever way their mood/personalities dictate. In addition to learning names, it gives a real insight into the characters of a classroom. Teachers helped students who are non-speaking (and those students were able to touch 10 the bag, whisper, and/or wave).
Jessie also used action songs, repetition, clear and simple instructions, visual/graphic cues, turn-taking activities and body percussion.
A team approach was hugely important to successful outcomes for students with ASD. It was essential to have several meetings before, during and after a series of music workshops in order to navigate how things were progressing. These meetings took place on a regular basis (both formally and informally) in Scoil Íosagáin and SLET. These meeting were much less frequent in St Mary’s on the Hill, and correspondingly, there was less of a communal atmosphere within the music classroom. The units that embedded play, communication and fun between the children, SNAs/teachers and music educators had noticeably more progression and student engagement than units where the teachers/SNAs were distracted and/or separate to the music classrooms.
Further CPD is identified as a need for all Music Generation tutors, and Jessie suggests that we need to move away from a few specialist music educators who are trained in Autism.
In an ideal world, we should not need an ‘inclusive Community of Practice’ or a programme that hosts ‘inclusive music workshops.’ Every brass and wind, traditional music, hip-hop, classical, pop and rock programme would be inclusive in its approach, and it is up to all of us to strategise how best to get there. Jessie believes that inclusion shouldn’t be taken care of by experts in disability studies or music therapists only; inclusion should be everyone’s right, and equally everyone’s obligation to support in the wider musical community.
The use of visuals and other resources that students with ASD need takes time to adapt and create. Jessie estimates that it took three times longer to prepare for her ASD classes than her standard instrumental class (fiddle, flute) or early years programmes.
It inadvertently creates a scenario where some tutors are prepping and working harder to support young musicians appropriately.
Jessie attributes the self reflective process as the key to the success of the project in Autumn 2021 and advises that the time needed to reflect should be officially built into teaching timetables for ASD classes.
Jessie reflects that it isn’t about the methods that she finds useful as an educator, it is all centred around what the young people need in the moment. And notes that often children with ASD need visual aids, repetition, and simple instructions.
Once you have your plan, it is hugely important to stay flexible; if you wanted to start with an upbeat song, but then the room needs a bit of calm, it is hugely important to ‘read the room.’ Understanding the basics of Autism and preparing well for the classes is hugely important. But even more important than this, musician educators have to be fully present, aware, calm, energetic and flexible throughout the entire music lesson for it to be a success. This could be said to be true of every teaching scenario, but it is especially true while working with children with Autism who may be looking to the adults for help to self-regulate themselves. They really need to be seen, accepted and celebrated.