Autism and Music

Mar 23, 2022

 I was fascinated by the piano almost before I could talk. The first chair I learnt to climb onto age 2 was the piano chair. Musical sounds can make so much more sense than verbal sounds to us because they are based on logical patterns that don’t change according to the social context like spoken language. Many of us have enhanced hearing which when combined with pattern recognition and hyperfocus, means that we can quickly make progress in music.

If I were at school today, I probably would get an autism diagnosis early on. I stood out as the child who roamed the playground alone, pacing and skipping and inventing imaginary friends. I rarely spoke at school unless it was to answer a direct question - I would probably have been described as selectively mute if that term had been around in the 1970s. But I was a happy child, loved and supported by my (also probably neurodivergent) parents, who encouraged all my passions and didn’t push me socially.

Secondary school was much harder than primary. Academically I found it easy, but I felt like an alien compared to the other girls. They also saw me as different - I was called “weird, handicapped freak” daily, and for the most part had nobody that I could call a friend. I took refuge in the world of music.

I was fortunate that my school, a large standard comprehensive in central London, had a special music programme in which I was selected to participate, meaning that I received up to five hours a week of extra-curricular music tuition from top-class teachers. This led to me gaining a music degree from Cambridge University.

I always wanted to help others in my work, and school was a special interest for me: as a child I would arrange my toys and cut out catalogue pictures into schools, and I had happy memories of school: the structure, the routine and the lessons. So teaching seemed like a logical next step. I took a year’s PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate of Education) in primary education with music specialism, and passed it, but was told repeatedly on my teaching practice that while the content of my lessons was good, my “delivery” was wrong. I had no advice on what would make it right, other than “if you don’t improve, you’re going to fail.”

I now know this was due to my autistic style of communication. This also became an issue in job interviews - I was never successful in one, despite my degree from a top-class university and an impeccable portfolio of lesson plans. So, I had to fall back on Plan B - piano teaching. It started (in pre-internet days) with cards in shop windows advertising my tuition services. I then branched out into schools as a peripatetic piano and keyboard teacher, going into each school once or twice a week, and this is what I’m still doing nearly 28 years later! It has worked out for the best - I’m far better teaching in a 1:1 situation, and if I’d gone into classroom teaching, with all the school politics and complex staff dynamics, I’d have burnt out long ago.

With my autism, even 1:1 teaching can be a struggle at times: I am very sensitive to sound and frequently get overloaded by the bombardment of noise in an average workday, so I often need to spend my evenings in silence to recover. Communicating with a large range of people also takes its toll and I get exhausted very quickly. But on the plus side, I work for myself and can manage my own workload, and I take the full school holidays off to rest and recharge.

I have been privileged to work with several neurodivergent students who have got on particularly well with me, including one boy who came to me age nine having been rejected by three other teachers because of his method of learning. He was barely verbal at that time, and could not read a note of music, but had perfect pitch and had already worked out how to play Grade 5 level pieces by ear. With me he passed all the grades up to 8 which is the highest, and then went on to study for a music degree.

I sought diagnosis after my wife suggested it because we had some difficulty with communication. When I was diagnosed at the age of 44, everything in my life began to make sense. As it happens, my wife is also autistic, she got her diagnosis after me! Generally we are very much on the same wavelength which is what drew us to each other, but every autistic person is different and we still sometimes have issues.

A big issue for me is alexithymia, that is not being able to recognise or name feelings, and not being able to process emotions until sometimes days after the event.

I have recently contributed to a book “Learning from Autistic Teachers” published by JKP in April 2022. I hope that this book will be ground-breaking in busting stereotypes about autism and teachers – Madge Woollard.