Teaching Music To Kids With Autism

Dec 06, 2020

So today I'm interviewing C.J. Stout, and that's actually why don't you introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about who you are.

My name's C.J..I am 39 years old. I live in the Pacific Northwest of the United States in a place called Shoreline, which is a suburb of Seattle,

just a few blocks up the street. And so I've lived here in the northwest since, gosh, for a long time, since 1988. And now I'm married to my wife, who also grew up in Mukilteo. We both grew up in a little suburb of Seattle, right outside Everett called Mukilteo. And we have two young children. Lovely.


Lovely. And what did you study when you went to college?

Well, I started after finishing high school. Of course, I wanted to do music because I

had been playing guitar since the age of 12 and started doing piano as early as five to with little results and wound up picking up piano again. When I went to community college, Shoreline Community College was my first destination and I took the music program there, which was theory and piano and juries and wound up getting a transfer degree to get myself to the University of Washington, where I majored in communications and finished my undergrad

in social interaction. That was my B.A. is in communication with an emphasis on social interaction and then what did you do with that? Well, I had been working kind of, you know, the typical well, I don't want to say what's typical. I'd been working in various service jobs and playing in bands and gigging as much as possible. At a certain point, I decided I was going to leave that work and find a purpose that was greater than myself. I I had grown up watching the show Life Goes On, featuring Chris Burke, and that was a striking experience in my formative years as a child, seeing and witnessing on TV the experience of this family, of a child with a disability. And I had always had this compulsion, this drive to effect change in the lives of people with disabilities, and that show was a catalyst for that for me. I decided I was going to work with people with special needs. I marched over to the experimental education unit, also known as the EU, which is a research hub for the United States, about teaching children and namely children with special needs.


This is at University of Washington?

Indeed, indeed. I wasn't yet a student, a grad student there yet.



Anyways, I worked at the EEU and started working with kids of all abilities, which led me to an opportunity to attend their graduate program, the College of Education, and achieve a master's degree in early childhood special education. This afforded me other opportunities to work privately as a behavior technician in the homes of some children. Back then, it wasn't even behavior tech. It was just you're an in-home therapist. Somebody who came to the home,

was trained and supervised and then worked with the child, you know, several hours a day for however many days a week. That's a long answer to. I finished my master's degree at the University of Washington in early childhood special education and wound up working for King County's largest early intervention provider, hindering serving families of children with disabilities

ages birth to three for about 10 years.


Wow, that's amazing. So then how did this come that you started teaching music?

I had always been teaching music the whole way through. I'd have kids I knew in high school

their little brothers and sisters always teaching guitar along the way. And in my first year as an early interventionist, as a special educator and family's homes,  my first ever home visit was walking into this family's home and I see a little boy in front of a piano and he's picking out a tune.He's not even 30 months old.



I'm thinking this is really striking.



Thank goodness I'm here. This boy had autism. He had a formal diagnosis of ASD - autism spectrum disorder. His parents needed support with things like sustaining attention, flexibility, following directions, expressive and receptive communication. I was trained to do these things. I had my degree. Nevertheless, I also recognized his affinity and prowess in music. His attention for music, the way that it lit him up, wow. And after he turned three and aged out of our program, I just I thought, well, he's still all along. I had been using music as a way to motivate him to target his areas for growth. I say to his mom and dad, you know, I'm curious to know if I can still work with your family and Work with music, work with him on music,

and they said, well, great, because we have established this very meaningful relationship.

That's our job as early intervention providers is to support the family. So as parents, we're open to the idea. And I said, OK, great, I can't wait to work on music with this three year old child.

And look, how am I going to do this? I don't I don't know how, but I know this is this child has it in them, just like all children do. Every child responds to music in their own way, one way or another.


They do.


So I got to work doing research. And I came across an e-book called Play Piano for Kids.

This was in 2012. Playing Piano for kids seemed like the most accessible, modified, essentially special education for music learners that I had ever seen.And there was nothing like it and So I would show up to his house just like it would for a typical home, is it? Except it was, hey,

Let's color your fingers and put these stickers on your piano. And he had already succeeded with such fundamental skills as imitation and receptive identification and matching. So those were the three core things that we needed to know. Could he receptively identify a color that he imitate sounds and actions? And could he match? And he could at three years old. So that was the beginning, and that's that's a long answer and that's done.


That was lovely. How did you get to the Musicolor Method?


Well, in 2012, I don't even I didn't even know what the Musicolor Method was. I knew how to play piano for kids and we did lessons for about two years. And then my first child was born. And as you know, my life changed quite a bit. But, yeah, that's that's how I got started. Well, back in 2012, it wasn't called the Musicolor Method yet because it was just, oh, this thing that we are doing here in Brooklyn. So it wasn't until 2015 that that organized curriculum became known as the Musicolor Method. 


So you're really at the beginning. 


It's pretty. It's really amazing. I feel very fortunate, very grateful that at the time I was looking at your provision was available. 


Lovely. So tell me about these students. What is their,  what's the biggest challenge of working with special needs students on music and why and is music? Well, maybe there's two parts to this question. Is music relevant and useful for all special needs students?


 In my experience, music is fundamental to learning in early childhood, to learning not just music, but learning life skills, learning functional, meaningful, socially significant skills in the classroom that I lead at our early intervention program. It was called, it is still there. It's called Cubs' Communication, Understanding, Behavior and socialization. It was essentially a small preschool program for children on the autism spectrum. That is my specialty. I'm a board certified behavior analyst as well as my degree in special ed and as the leader of that classroom. I used music throughout the day. When we did circle time, we'd have the ukulele and we'd sing Itsy Bitsy Spider whenever there was a transition and we would go from our classroom to go climbing or play in the motor jam. I would use the melodica and play a melody and through this little melody horn and nothing elicited and evoked the attention of young children more than music, even something as fundamental as about going having the happy apple and playing and spinning it around was so effective at yielding attention. So that's the answer to is is music meaningful and effective. Does it support learning? And for children, for all children, regardless of perceived limitations, diagnosis, disability, every child I've ever met. Has responded to music meaningfully. 


Hmm. So when. When you're teaching now, you're teaching how to play music, right? You were applying music in those classrooms. Did you actually try to teach, like basic music skills, sing along, clap along kind of things in the classroom? 


Absolutely. So embedded in the circle time experience, we often would do things like imitation, you know, do what I am doing, follow for me. I have a name and it goes like this. C.J. he has a name and it goes like this. Andrew. Yeah. And some families really love that and relished the experience in my classroom. And then some of them, I would let them know, hey, if you're interested in doing music lessons after you're aging out of our program, I'm happy to continue working with your family or working with your child to explore what, how they might respond to learning to play piano. 


So why, why do you always start with piano? 


Absolutely. At three years old, it's the most level playing field. 


OK, and three, three is really early, so. Yeah. And how do you know that you can work with the child. I mean some kids have more needs. Another one. Right. How do I, how do you know when it's OK to work with a child learning piano or music. 


Well, I really like to look for those three fundamental skills that we mentioned earlier, which are matching more receptive identification. 


What does that mean when you say receptive? 


If I say if I hold up to things and I say, Andrew, show me the pencil. Hmm. You know, which one is the pencil?


OK, so that's kind of. Understanding what the label is.


Yes, if I say, Andrew, show me blue, you can point to the blue one. Oh, I'm sorry, the blue I'm looking at. Yeah. So and then the last thing is. Imitation, if I clap my hands twice, you can clap your hands twice, if I clap my hands at all, you clap your hands at all. It doesn't even have to be twice because if I clap once and you clap five times, we can shape that. 


I see. So tell us a quick blurb about what is Shoreline Music Lessons. 


Well, right now, Shoreline Music Lessons specializes in providing early childhood music instruction using the Musicolor method to children of all abilities. So children of typically developing families are typically developing children and children that might have more specialized needs or exceptionalities like autism spectrum disorder. I have vast experience working with children, with special needs and as an early interventionist and I have a master's in early childhood special education and a board certified behavior analyst. So that affords me a robust experience in working with children that have autism spectrum disorder.


 That's fantastic. How many students do you have right now? 


Currently I'm teaching about seven. It's all virtual, as is the world right now. Right. And I do have a client with autism spectrum disorder right now. And we're working really hard on things like matching and imitation and identifying colors and fine motor control. And this is all virtual. We're doing this remote. 


It indeed must be a challenge. 


It sure can be. Alright. So, well, tell me, how did you get into all of this in the first place? 


Let's see. Are you getting into working with families of children with disabilities started in about 2007? 


When I got a job at the experimental education unit at the University of Washington, which is a research place, a research hub for curriculum and. Children with special needs like Down's syndrome or as the autism spectrum disorder. Some of the biggest names in research, in published research came out of there. And I just got a job as a teacher. And 10, 15 years on, I have completed their master's program. 


Fantastic. So. You must play piano. I mean, is that your main instrument? 


My main instrument is guitar. That's kind of how I fell in love with music at an early age like many, and started doing piano around five years old to various degrees of success. I don't know if I, if it was me who wasn't ready or my instructors who, you know, were may or may not have hit the mark. 


How did they teach you what kind of methodology or curriculum that they use to teach? 


That's a great question. I can't recall. You know, at five years old, I remember I had a teacher that I loved for about two lessons. She was great. And then she was gone suddenly. And I had a new replacement teacher and it didn't go as well. And I didn't pick up formal piano instruction again until community college around like. 


Wow. So you are now teaching very differently than you were exposed to back in the day. 




Well, I guess what would you say is your who's your ideal student?


Let's see. My ideal student showed themselves to me back in 2012 when I walked into the home of a three year old boy who had this striking affinity for music. And I was looking for a way to teach him he was three years old and had ASD and showed lots of promise. And we, his parents and I talked about it. And then I said, oh, I need to find a way to  teach this  child. I found an ebook on my iPad called Play Piano for Kids. This was exceptional because there was nothing else like it and it was developmentally appropriate. It was the only thing I had seen that I could relate to a three year old who had the ability to identify colors, imitate sounds and actions and match. These were things that we were working on. With his family to teach us as a three year old as a two and a half year old, long story short, we went, I went into his house after he turned three, put some stickers on his piano, colored his fingernails, and I was floored at how well this child took to this curriculum. We learn songs like Peanut Butter Sandwich and Let's Jump In the Pool and Coocoo. And within a year, he was playing 10 songs. 




Because there were two e-books at the time. 


Yeah, yeah, yeah. 


And so that's that's the long version of how I got to finding a curriculum that I could teach in early childhood. 


I mean, so what? 


So that was our earliest book about the musical method before it was even called the Musicolor Method. 


What was, what were you, what do you think was good about it that helped you be successful?


 Well, as a special educator, the hallmark of special education is modifying and adapting curriculum to improve access for all children. 


So what separated the music? 


What is now the Musicolor Method from any other piano instruction or music instruction period that was available in 2012 and even today is that it's modified and adapted to level the playing field anyway, it's just powerful to be able to have a three year old who can match, imitate and identify colors, learn to succeed, making music because all children respond to music. 


So that's fantastic. 


Yes, but the hallmark of  special education was a parent in play piano for kids and the Musicolor Method. 


So. Were there any other methods you were using before you came across the Musicolor Method for piano instruction? 


The thing that I had some experience personally with and that I tried concurrently with Musicolor Method was a dozen a day, OK, exercise books, exercise books that were simple and but the teaching the fundamentals of of using all five, all 10 fingers at the same time, really making making it accessible to a child without the need for robust, overt instruction. There's an intuitive and intuitive universal design piece to the Musicolor method that makes it easy for a child to say, oh, I put my red finger on the red key rather than me saying, OK, this is your first finger. And here's the key. And it's this ledger line, on and on. 


So does this work for older students as well? 


I do have children that are 10 plus that have been working in the Musicolor Method for a little while. And what I'm seeing in these children is a persistence with problem solving. That's what I love about the Musicolor Method is because it's accessible, the level of challenge is in just the right spot that they're able to persist because fine motor control can be really tough. And so I'm seeing persistence in, OK, I'm going to get my green finger, which is my ring finger, which is hard to isolate and persist until it gets there, until I can use just that finger on the green key. And so, yes, I am. I'm seeing results in children that are school age. And then showing gains with persistence, with sustaining attention and reduced latency response times, meaning if I say let's use your red finger on the red key. Well, that could take some time on our first lesson. But five lessons in. I can ask them to use their red finger on both hands and they'll be able to respond. 


So are these children typically able to take other lessons from other music teachers who don't have the musical instrument? 


And, you know, I've not  come across any exceptional children or families of these children that have experience with other, um, other curricula or other instructors, other music schools. And I'm not sure why, but I do believe that. What shoreline music culture. I'm sorry. What Shoreline Music Lessons offers via the Musicolor Method is exceptional, is uncommon and affords families an opportunity to see that their child has access. 


Right. Oh, that's awesome. So they don't have to be a prodigy or some little Mozart to, uh, to work with you. 


No, no. If  they can recognize colors imitate. Yeah. We're in a good place. 


So would you work with families outside of the Seattle area, like because everything's remote nowadays? Are you open to working with people from afar internationally?


 Indeed, I certainly am. In fact, most of my clientele is not immediately available. So I've got all my lessons via Zoom right now. And some of my families are 15, 20 miles away. But what works virtually for somebody 20 miles away is the same as 200 miles away. So that's an interesting thing. 


How are you able to reach these children who especially have special needs through the remote screen? Are you doing something special for them?


 Two things that I feel make my virtual instruction exceptional beyond just in addition to the Musicolor Method, I'll say, is using a pretty robust virtual software called OBS- open broadcast software, and it allows me to illustrate even further some of the supports and adaptations that a child might need. Let's say we're learning the first song in the Musicolor Method, peanut butter sandwich, and I'm asking a child to use their right hand. I can use this software and say, here's your right hand and it's on the right side of the screen. That was necessary. I can also have the music populate on the window, but I try to keep things as visually concise as possible and not overwhelming or just too distracting. 


That's wonderful. 


And then when we switch hands, we'll go to the left hand. Yes. That's so good, I guess is my right, but it's a mirror. 


Oh, that's wonderful. 


Using robust software to augment the interface, to augment the experience. 


Is another dimension of the Musicolor Method right now I'm using the same materials. 


Those are images from your books? 


Um, yeah. Nice,cool. So. If somebody came to you and said, my child's showing some interest, um, what do they need to work with you? What do they do? Is there a certain set up they have to get before they can even work with you?


 I have no barrier to entry beyond. Asking questions and doing a little interview with the parents to learn more about their child, their child's profile, what motivates them, what excites them, and the most important things, the why behind them or their child wants to learn music. Why do you want your child to learn music? Why do you think your child wants to learn music, do they? 


Mm hmm. Mm hmm. So is music good for, uh, autistic children with special needs children? 


In my experience, music is good for all children. It's the way every child responds to music one way or another. And a child with ASD relative to another child that same age might have the same response. Different responses. Who's to say. But they respond nonetheless. And the Musicolor Method affords both of those children both profiles a level playing field for creating. 


Hmm. So is there a. So the Musicolor Method uses color as evident in the name, right? Do you find that there's a, It ever interferes with them going further to learn general music, reading on the staff, you know, becoming a real musician. 


I have not found any reason or rationale behind why the Musicolor Method. Interferes, in fact, I think of it as the springboard towards that by increasing access, leveling the playing field and giving these kids what's more important than anything is a  meaningful emotional experience. I'm not so concerned with what they're learning, but more about how they feel when they're learning it, because at the end of the day, what we all remember isn't what happened, but how we feel about what happened. And so if a child is showing a positive affective response throughout the lesson, I don't have to be there in person to recognize that I can monitor their affect through the camera. And if I'm seeing a quiet smile or if I'm seeing laughter, or if I'm seeing a sense of pride because they played a piece, you know, successfully, those are the takeaways that I believe resonate with a child more than well, I learn to read the treble clef today or I could spell a three letter word. Those are big wins for that child. That's tremendous success. But the bar by which I measure a child. Learning is their effect. 


Hmm, that's deep. So. Are there any kind of special needs that would not be that maybe you couldn't work with? Is there any kind of condition or or situation that is just. Um. It's just too hard or something?


 I think that I don't, I don't like to limit access, I like having everybody. Available to knock on the door... the thing that I believe that most children -  that all children will struggle with to overcome that are interested in playing music is the fine motor control piece. That's that's that's a challenge for. For a lot of children with. With that are learning occupational skills, occupational meaning, their their hands, their limbs, having control of their body and families that recognize the value in learning and refining those skills are grateful to have the Musicolor Method in their lives because children that are interested in learning music get the opportunity to refine those skills abundantly when learning their first song on the first day, and that it incorporates nearly every finger on one hand. Mm hmm. We might focus on one or two fingers if that's more aligned with the child's profile and their needs.


 Right. So do you see that these kinds of lessons help more than just being a fun activity to fill up the afternoon? Or does it have an imprint on the rest of their lives or.. 


Well, in my gosh, in my 20 years teaching music. Music learning supports all learning, and the kids that I taught 20 years ago, I know are still playing today because they check in once in a while. It was lovely. It's a treat. And today in my work with children on the autism spectrum, the gains that I'm seeing, the gains that I recognize beyond their their affective and emotional response, the life skills that I'm seeing are sustained attention having a child sit and participate in one to one, essentially one to one, maybe two to one instruction if their parents involved. And often they are sustaining attention to any activity for up to 30 minutes is a tremendous win, especially when it's a novel. 




Other gains that are functional and socially significant include their problem-solving and persistence. Can I encourage this child to make it through not just the first line, but the whole song and when I see that it's such a whirlwind, there's persistence and problem solving is a lifelong skill and that that changes over time, what that means and what that looks like. But if we can foster that in the three, four or five year old and a 12 year old. That's a win for everybody. 


That's awesome. So I know you're unique in that you have the special education training. Do you feel that other teachers need to have that to work successfully with the Musicolor Method to teach? 


Children in general, it's not requisite, but it's certainly helpful. Research shows that what is effective for kids with disabilities is effective for all children, just like music. Learning supports all learning. So something that works for a child on the autism spectrum works just as well for my child. Hmm. And I'm thrilled and grateful to be able to offer that opportunity to both. 


So you have your own kids, you're a dad. How old are your kids now? 


I have a boy who's turning five next month and a boy who's about 30 months. 


Oh, wow. So are they and they are learning music from dad with the older? 


Yes. The oldest is he's been playing since he was about 30 months. 




There's a short video of him on Shoreline Music Lessons website playing. Ah, the first song. 


Oh, nice. He's probably got, uh, he has a lot of songs that he has in his repertoire, walking the line between being a dad and teacher. 


We know, we're all walking that line somehow. 


Yeah. I love it. I love it. So how do parents get in touch with you? What's the best way for them to find you?


 There's a contact form on Shoreline Music Lessons website. That's probably the easiest way to drop me a line there or book a call on the same website.


Awesome. ShorelineMusicLessons.Com. So is there anything that you feel like you want everybody to know in closing here as like something that may be a fun fact or a one more thing? 


I think in closing if I was the take home message that I'd like people to understand or to recognize, is the power of music reveals itself every day. And in my classroom, working for King County's largest early intervention provider for over 10 years, I saw every child respond to sound. This was such a powerful observation that I used music abundantly throughout the day in all aspects of the classroom and home programming. I was so compelled by this that I offered it to many families after their child aged out of my program at the center. And so many years on, I feel so strongly about not just the. Need to teach music in early childhood, but that the Musicolor Method is the way to do it, that I left my career of 10 years too. To bring this to two families, the children of all abilities. That wish to effect change in their lives and their own lives and their family's lives, and I feel compelled to bring that. 


Wow, that's fantastic. Well, thank you so much, C.J. This was so great and I hope great things are happening coming towards your way. And we'll be sharing this with all of our friends and family and hopefully new customers for you. 


Well, I hope so. And thanks for your time, Andrew. Thanks for the opportunity. 


Thanks, C.J. 

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