Cameron Weckerley has been teaching music and giving private lessons for over 20 years. He works with students of all skill levels and abilities. Over the course of his career, Cameron was presented with the opportunity to teach music to students with autism. Cameron was kind enough to answer a few questions and share his thoughts on this transformative experience:
How did you first come to work with autistic music students?
When I moved back to town from New Mexico a couple of years ago we were living 11 miles out of town which made setting up a studio at home impossible. For a while my colleague Deedra Patrick was kind enough to carve out a niche of space for me to work in in her studio which was in town.
It was in this environment I first came into working contact with autistic young people and their parents. It was the parents who approached me about working with an autistic student. It was an an intriguing idea, however I did not think I was qualified. Even with teaching credentials and over a decade of experience teaching public school I had always worked only with mainstream students. Much to my surprise the parents were completely OK with my lack of disorder specific education. All they wanted was someone who was willing to try.
What surprises you the most about teaching autistic students?
The one thing that I have learned deeply is that, at least with the students I have, autism is an Input/Output disorder. It is not specifically linked to intelligence. I am guessing most of you reading this are using a computer phone or tablet and each has a keyboard. When you want to send someone a message you use the keyboard and you expect specific inputs to produce specific outputs. For example, press the f key and the character f appears on the screen. In the mind of an autistic person when the f key gets pushed perhaps the response is d. Not an intelligence issue at all; it is just as if someone randomly rewired the keyboard.
What has worked for me is to spend the time up front to decode the language - find the key to unscramble the keyboard if you will. Once a common language has been established there is a basis for information flow and you can make contact with the CPU at the core of that person.
Any highlights you'd like to share? Success stories?
Figuring out how to decode was one of my early musical success stories. When my first autistic student came to me he had been studying voice for some time, but had no instrumental training. When he first played for me I was surprised by the sophistication the student had self-taught. Mostly what he was playing were themes from television shows he liked. On a hunch I jotted down the themes he was playing and the keys he was playing them in. At the end of the day I looked up some of the themes on YouTube. As I had suspected he was playing them in the correct key. I also soon learned that the student had developed his own color language for the piano keyboard. I was very curious to know if his system was consistent, both with itself and over time. After fully decoding his color language and testing him over the period of three or four weeks it was clear that is was consistent.
It was therefore easy to test him for perfect pitch, which he has in addition to a fantastic memory. More importantly, in the long run, we were able to use his language to bridge over into the common language of music and music notation.
What do you find most challenging about this work?
It would be impossible for me to do what I am doing right now without the close involvement of the parents. However, working with them in the formal lesson setting sometimes makes for a strange dance. With an autistic student it is important that the parent speak up and give the teacher insight when things are at an impasse or the students frustration level is getting too high.
The catch-22 is that sometimes this kind of intervention is disruptive to the discovery process. The parents are doing the same dance and we’re all making it up as we all go along...only to have the rules change the next week. It is enormously rewarding work, yet it requires tremendous patience, as I am sure any parent reading this can attest.
How have you grown as a teacher from this experience?
These experiences I am having have helped me more than anything else to develop the collaborative learning process. That is a voyage of mutual discovery - all corniness aside.