All education professionals need to be flexible. This is especially true when teaching students with autism. During a half-hour piano lesson an instructor may be required to drastically change their compliance schedule, replace the current reinforcer (s) etc., further individualize the material for a student or decide that behavior reduction has become an immediate priority (as opposed to the instructional material). What works for one student may not work for another and what does not affect one student's performance may drastically improve another's. And then there's what will work for tomorrow's lesson.

There are very few rules and many, many guidelines. While defending a successful teaching strategy for each student is challenging, determining what 'success' is for that student can also be arbitrary and hard to nail down. Is a student successful when they play a song independently? Or should the criteria be that they also perform the piece without any mistakes? Perhaps, playing and performing piano pieces are only a means to an end. Is the act of focusing and practicing, constructively for increasing amounts of time the true benefit? What about the possible social skills development resulting from learning and performing music in the community?

I am inclined to state that these are all stages of a student's individual development and therefore levels of success, but that is not true. At least, it is not accurate to assign a relative quality of success to each level for all students. While a student's performance can be measured to reflect his or her progress it is more difficult to quantify the benefits associated with the process in general. What is the impact on his current and future peer's perception of them after finding out that they are learning the piano? Or, what is the affect on society's perception in general for that matter? How does practicing the piano benefited their fine-motor and hand-eye-coordination skills in respect of other instruction programs? While these questions are more challenging to answer, it is the teacher's responsibility to definitively decide just what each student's immediate definition of success is. For some students this is defined as playing with multiple fingers or introducing the skill of playing with the left hand or possibly fading a prompt. The relative difficulty associated with any of these forms of instruction is as unique as each student is unique.

Therefore, all students' progress through individualized phases of instruction, but these phases may or may not be leading to the same goal for each student. If you imagine a teaching phase as a rung in a ladder, each step is leading towards a goal; yet the path that each student uses can be very unique. For instance, all of our students are initially taught to read musical notation. A certain percentage of our students have not yet met the given criteria which indicates that they have an understanding of this skill. Instead of discontinuing that student's education at the piano, his 'ladder' adjusts and a new set of material is provided which will allow him or her to appropriately interact with the piano and play new and challenging pieces. The skill of reading musical notation is still reviewed and practiced. It is the teacher's goal to make this skill clear to him by adjusting the curriculum. In the meantime, though, he is developing his fine-motor skills, participating in a structured activity and shares the possibility of future involvement in the musical community.

It is appropriate for instructors to focus on skill acquisition in the early stages of a student's development at the piano. This allows them the chance to generalize the skill across locations, teachers and materials – ie practicing at home, with his or her parent / guardian and on a new keyboard. At a certain point though, all students would benefit from a structured and supervised system of community involvement. This could be a parent / guardian bringing the student to a musical performance or on a trip to a museum with a friend. For the vast majority of all students who pursue the piano, the instrument today provides an enriching hobby or pastime. Our goal is not to foster virtuosi or seek out prodigies at the piano.

Rather, it is to develop a skill which will provide the opportunity to further strengthen the student's life. The other factor would be society's perception. Fairly or unfairly, people often make judgments on an individual based on their abilities / interests. An understanding of core educational curriculum is important but sometimes learning that a person enjoys baseball or hiking is much more indicative of how you will get along. To a certain degree, I think most of our clients who decide to begin piano instruction for their child understands this and view the process as beneficial in that way. I must stress though that the goal of all of our teachers is to challenge the student appropriately and allow objective data to indicate just what immediate and future success is for that student. Unfortunately, I have found that the more challenged a student is the more that his challenges end-up defining what success is for him. All students should be given the opportunity to succeed, regardless of behavioral or comprehension challenges, based on objective standards instead of this subjective assessment.

Therefore, while it is important to initially challenge all students equally, it is just as important to individualize each student's development going ahead. I feel that a good example of this is a recent student who was diagnosed with autism and visual impairment. Going into the lesson, the degree of both these challenges was unknown to myself or the teacher. After concluding the initial baseline (which measures the student's ability to read musical notes and identify the keys of the piano {the result was 0% correct}) I decided to try some discrimination trials. The student correctly identified several letters over 3 or 4 trials when he was asked to “Point to G”, “Point to F”, etc. At that point we can objectively determine that the current material is appropriate for him and proceed with instruction. It does not mean that the material will not have to be individualized along the way, though. It would be seem to be very understandable for a teacher to determine that, based on this student's challenges, it would be best to incorporate brail, teach the piano 'by ear' or adjust the standard immediately. It would seem to be understandable but it would not be fair to the student.