Lucy's story

Nurturing exceptional musical potential in a blind child with autism

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features a young blind child, Lucy, who is ten years old, autistic and has severe learning difficulties, but with exceptional musical potential, with her teacher, Daniel. Adam, founder of The Amber Trust, is also present.

  • Background

    The video shows one of Lucy’s weekly piano lessons with Daniel, which take place at her special school, for primary-aged children with a range of special educational needs and disabilities. Lucy and Daniel have been working together for around six years.

  • Aim

    The aim of the video is to show how severe learning difficulties, blindness and autism need be no barrier to exceptional musical achievement. It highlights some of the innovative strategies that teachers can use to engage successfully with pupils who have complex cocktails of ability and need.

  • What does the film cover?

    Access to appropriate music education is every child’s right

    The video makes the point that it is all too easy to overlook the potential of children like Lucy, since their capacity to engage with music and develop musical skills may initially be hidden amid a welter of challenging behaviours and obsessions. Teachers’ starting assumption should always be that a child is capable of achieving anything, unless and until it can be shown otherwise; there is a danger that the prejudicial constraints that may form in the mind of a teacher on a first meeting become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the child. Attitudes formed of well-meaning (or less benignly formulated) ignorance may well be the biggest barrier a child has to face. The reason for making this video is to advocate for appropriate music provision for all children like Lucy and, beyond that, for all children with disabilities, irrespective of their levels of musical attainment. For them, music may be a means of unlocking language and social skills, of promoting emotional wellbeing and self-esteem, and, above all, nurturing a sense of fun.

    Learning versus teaching

    In the video, Adam contends that, in one sense, it is impossible to teach a child anything; one can only facilitate their development through providing an optimal environment in which they can learn. This is particularly true of many children with severe autism – including those, like Lucy, who are blind – because their lives are so often self-directed, sometimes to the virtual exclusion of the influence of others. Lucy began by teaching herself to play the keyboard, and that extraordinary inner drive could all too easily have fuelled a battle with her teacher and derailed any pre-determined teaching agenda that he may have tried to bring to bear. Yet, in the lesson we see in the film, that doesn’t happen: Daniel skilfully nudges Lucy’s self-determined learning trajectory towards ends that will enable her to achieve more than would otherwise have been possible; gently introducing her to new repertoire (and giving her choices as to what to learn next) and suggesting fingering patterns that enable her to realise on the keyboard what she can hear so well in her head.

    Introducing a new piece

    Daniel ensures that Lucy knows how a new piece of music sounds by playing it to her all the way through before she attempts to have a go herself. This is important as Lucy learns entirely by ear, and to remember pieces accurately it will help her to know how all the parts that she will subsequently hear and practise separately fit into a whole. Making sure that a child has a piece of music in their head (either through performing it to them or listening to a recording of it with them) before they attempt to play it on an instrument is generally good practice.

    Choosing repertoire

    Lucy is fortunate in having a teacher who is comfortable playing in a range of styles. In the past, Daniel has introduced her to a broad spectrum of music and flexibly adapts to her interests of the moment. Here, he builds on her fascination with Bach’s ‘48 Preludes and Fugues', and her love of blues and jazz. Despite the pieces hailing from very different musical traditions, they are all grist to Lucy’s voracious musical mill.

    Modelling technique through touch

    We see Daniel demonstrating the ‘hand under hand’ technique, in which Lucy places her hands on his, so that she can feel as well as hear him play the piece. Daniel also uses the ‘hand over hand’ approach, in which he places his hand on top of Lucy’s to show her an effective fingering for a passage. Both are important compensatory strategies in working with visually impaired children with limited functional language. Teaching within a special school, Daniel is careful to follow their policies on using touch with pupils, many of whom have complex needs.

    Sensory regulation

    Like many children who are on the autism spectrum or who are visually impaired or both, Lucy displays a number of repeated movements that suggest she is trying to regulate her sensory needs: rocking her head from side to side, for example. In time, however, such behaviours can become merely habitual rather than fulfilling a sensory function, and, in piano lessons, can potentially prevent Lucy from directing all her energy into her arms, hands and fingers. In the film, we see Daniel discouraging Lucy from rocking, and attempting to compensate for it by tickling the top of the head, which is less of a physical impediment to her playing.

    Using language appropriately

    Lucy’s verbal communication and understanding are limited. In the video, notice how Daniel uses language minimally, in short phrases, and uses only words and concepts that are directly relevant to the task in hand. This gives Lucy the best possible chance of understanding what is being said, what is going to happen next, and to voice her own views. And, above all, it means that the maximum possible amount of time can be spent making music.