In the last years, I made a lot of experience with drumming and autism. Right from the first lesson, I could see a different approach, often more methodic and analytical. I strongly believe that a good teacher should find the right way for every single student. Actually, that’s exactly what I love about my job. Every drummer sitting before me is a universe with his own history and life experience. I love the seek for the right key for each one of them.
Psychiater and professor Wouter Staal sees autism as the ‘collective name for behavioral characteristics that indicate a vulnerability in the following areas: social interaction, communication, flexibility in thinking and acting and filtering and integrating information.’
In the collective imagination, autism is seen as a disease or a disturbance. Research shows that 70% of people with autism have normal or higher intelligence. It is another way of processing information, often in combination with a sensory hypo – or hypersensitivity, attention to detail, analytical thinking, and technical insight.
This description matches perfectly with my experience during drum lessons. That’s why I decided to learn more about this fascinating topic.
Vasilios Sliaras is a drummer and music therapist working in Amsterdam. We met during our studies at ArtEZ conservatory in Enschede a couple of years ago.
I had a couple of questions and he was definitely the perfect person to address them.
Here’s the interview:
Drumming and autism – Music therapist speaks:
Who are you and what is your expertise?
I am Vasilios Sliaras, a Music therapist, freelance musician, and drum teacher/ coach.
At the age of 8, I joined my town’s philharmonic orchestra where I learned to play the marching snare drum. Since then, I have been active in numerous bands and projects (rock, funk, jazz, blues, hip-hop, traditional, music-theatrical, parades, etc.).
I’m an alumnus of the music therapy (BA) department of ArtEZ Conservatorium, where I specialized in a psychiatric forensic environment specifically with people with an intellectual impairment.
Currently, I am a music therapist working with kids, teenagers, and young adults (0-23), who are in need of support or psychiatric treatment.
Do you use drums in your music therapy sessions? If yes, how?
In general, the percussion family is used a lot in music therapy sessions. One more reason for me to do so, as a drummer! Drums in general can be used in music therapy sessions as a tool to regulate emotions, to rehabilitate physically and psychologically, or adapt behaviors. These can be accomplished through musical experiences such as improvising, composing, and performing. Coming up with drum games for our little fellows is strongly recommended.
It is not a drum lesson, but an exercise utilizing the drum (percussions, drum set) to achieve the individual’s goals.
Which effects can play drums have on people with autism?
The effects may vary, from overstimulation to hyper-focusing and adapting to new musical information on the spot. Again, this depends on the individual and possibly how you introduce the instrument to a person with ASD.
Overstimulation can lead to ‘stimming’ [Repetitive or unusual movements or noises] and an overwhelming situation during a drum lesson is something we want to avoid.
We want a person with ASD to be able to use stimming in positive ways during these times to manage emotions and cope with overwhelming situations. The person with ASD may feel soothed by hitting on the drums hard or playing on the drum skins with their hands, and this can vary for everybody.
A person with autism can also possess what I call the “superpower” of hyper-focusing. Focusing on one task for a long period of time until it is perfected. In the end, this is what we drummers do right?
Should drum lessons have a specific structure in order to be more effective?
Having structure is indisputably critical, but with the right adaptations based on the student’s needs.
When the lesson is designed and/or adapted based on the student, this results in engagement, and the chances of understanding and retaining information is higher. Thus, we will maintain the students’ motivation, and motivation is the key to consistency. From my point of view, consistency is one of the pillars that makes a drum lesson effective.
What should a drum teacher know about autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopment condition that includes a wide range of complex developmental disabilities. It can manifest differently in every person because according to both autism symptoms and intelligence level, the severity of the disorder varies from very low to very high. Difficulties with social interaction, understanding verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behavior are some of the characteristics of an autistic person. The person may exhibit some of those characteristics to varying degrees.
Now, we have to assume that a drum teacher most probably will have to deal with persons with high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder (HFASD). Social communication and interaction are at a high developmental level.
Drum teachers have to remember that, in the beginning, it is better to focus on having fun on the drum set than teaching from day one drum technique and how to hit the drum correctly. Autism can make someone a perfectionist, and [not doing it right] can lead to results we don’t want, such as losing interest in learning the instrument, or “stimming” (repetition of physical movements or any other repetitive behavior). People with HFASD may also have difficulties understanding non-verbal cues and body gestures, something we as musicians, performers, and teachers use a lot. It is therefore essential that drum teachers pay attention to their non-verbal communication and gestures when teaching a student with autism.
Learning is a never-ending process. On one hand, the more you learn about a specific topic, the more you realize that you can always go deeper. On the other hand, if you focus on the process of learning, you realize there are many different ways to achieve and process the same information. I find this extremely fascinating.
The interview with Vasilios gave me new insights about the functionality and effectiveness of my approach.
Do you have experience in this field or do you think we missed some information? Let me know in the comments below or via mail!
Are you interested in drums and drumming? Read this article to know how and when the drumset was invented!