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Published May 20, 2010  UPDATED 9:57 AM
Some children with autism have a special affinity for music. It seems to calm them down and give them an easier way to express themselves. So music therapy has become popular for many autistic kids. But one music program at the Boston Conservatory is specifically for kids with autism — and it has nothing to do with therapy.

BOSTON — Gianna Hitsos is an eighth grader from Groton with an ambitious project: she’s making a CD of herself singing her favorite Broadway songs.

That’s a big deal for Gianna. Because when she was about one year old — just as she started saying words like “daddy” and “puppy” — she suddenly stopped talking. She didn’t talk again until she was almost three. The diagnosis was autism.

Now she gets private voice lessons at the Boston Conservatory on Saturdays during the school year. Other autistic kids in the same program study piano or guitar or violin. But they’re not here to learn to make eye contact or understand social cues or any of the other communication skills many kids with autism lack.

They attend to become better musicians. Period.

The program’s goal is to give autistic kids musical opportunities that could change their futures: Maybe playing in an orchestra, maybe performing in a band.

Studying The Same Music Skills They’d Learn In College

With a grad student from the conservatory as her teacher, Gianna learns technique, form, repertoire, theory, composition — the same skills she’d study as a music student in college. In fact, she now hopes she’ll go to college and study music, maybe right here at the conservatory. And that’s not her only goal.

“I feel like if I actually performed, and being able to take voice lessons, I can improve my singing skills and hopefully make it big,” Hitsos says.

If making it big is what these students want to do, that’s what their instructors try to help them do.

Now, kids with autism sometimes need a different teaching approach. Rhoda Bernard, who chairs the conservatory’s music education program, says autistic students often struggle with abstract concepts, including the idea that the musical alphabet only goes from A to G.

“One of students in the program last year had trouble,” Bernard recalls. “He wanted to go to H and keep going through the alphabet.”

So a teacher took a strip of construction paper, folded it into a circle, like a bracelet, and wrote the letters A through G. Then the student wore the bracelet on his wrist.

“So this child would then turn to the next letter, and after G it goes to A, so that this loop was very concrete,” Bernard explains, “and this was what unlocked the door to understanding the musical alphabet.”

Read in Full:  http://www.wbur.org/2010/05/20/music-for-autistic-kids

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