Aspergers and ‘painting music’

Over the last few decades, there have been very big changes in classroom attitudes – at least, in this part of the world.  Many teachers are of the opinion that academic rigour stifles self-expression, and in an attempt to foster creativity in their students, they have systematically dismantled structured teaching.

This might work for some students.  Yet, many students do not do well in this new environment, do not learn well using this new method.  Yes, I do focus on kids with Aspergers, but they are not the only ones who are having difficulties.  Many ‘normal’ kids find this ‘unstructured’ method of teaching makes learning more difficult.  The Aspie kids get completely lost in it.

Let me give you an example:

During a series of grade 3 art classes, the teacher played different types of music.  The assignment was to ‘paint’ the music while the students were listening to it.  I thought this was the height of idiocy:  no skills were being taught, and precious school time was being wasted.  But it was explained to me that I was being boorish, that this ‘exercise’ is scientifically designed to stimulate different areas of the brain to synthesize information, which is what kids at this age need more than anything else.

Please, do not misunderstand me.  I don’t have anything against art classes in general:  to the contrary.  My mother teaches art, and I have a deep love for it.  However, I think that kids actually get more enjoynment out of art if they are actually taught about it.  They will derive pleasure from drawing if some of the rules of proportion, or different  fun techniques are broken down into steps for them, so they can master the skills.  Once they have understood the rules, it will be more fun to ‘bend’ them to express their own artistic talents (and no, I don’t mean after years of study….rather, teach a specific skill, rules that govern it, and how to bend them and have fun with art).

Well, my son was in this particular art class.  He was in it because that teacher had gone to receive specific training on how to teach kids with Aspergers.  And then she got angry with an Aspie kid for ‘not being able to paint the music’ he was listening to????? 

Of course, what she was expecting was just non-sensicals colourful swirls – but she would never tell the students that.  With a prim smile, she insisted they ‘paint what the music makes them see’.  Questions of ‘How?’ were met with ‘That is up to YOU!’

Just before setting marks onto the report card, she called me to warn me that my son is about to fail art…  Let’s just say that I found it somewhat difficult to keep my temper.  (The problem was the frustration he experienced in being asked to complete a task he did not have the tools to perform, asking for help and being denied it, then penalized for failing by a bad mark.)

I explained to her that in that case, by her own standard, my son should have received an A+ for his artwork:  the music did not make him ‘see’ anything, so that is what he painted.  Or did not paint.  Either way, the result was accurate, and that he made a bold artistic statement by leaving the page blank.  Quite literally, he ‘drew a blank’!  In other words, I tried to ‘out-pretentious’ her.  It did not work – I’ve never been very good at it. 

However, the teacher said that if my son does 3 of these paintings and hands them in by Monday, he will not fail art.  So, we were left with the task to ‘paint music’.  My son and I talked about it, and it became clear that his frustration level was higher than usual.  But I came up with a solution I am still proud of!

Selecting a Physics textbook which had a good, simple explanation of ‘sound waves’, we read it over together and I explained all the diagrams to him.  Now, here was ‘sound’, represented visually!!!!  We were making progress.  Yet, many Aspies are sticklers for rules – my son could not paint the different types of music the same way!!!  And I was ready…

Rummaging around in the basement, I dusted off our old logic analyzer and brought it up.  Then I set up the display to emulate an oscilloscope, and we played the different types of music.  It worked!  The different sound waves made the oscilloscope display different curves.  Lifting his brush, and dipping it into the green paint (the display was green), my son went and happily painted the different types of music!

His teacher was thrilled!  She told him she knew that if he tried, he could paint music!  He told her they were ‘music waves’ and that he saw them.  I did not tell her that he saw them on an oscilloscope screen – somehow, I did not think that would please her.  Why spoil her pleasure? 

12 Responses to “Aspergers and ‘painting music’”

  1. Catana Says:

    Sheesh! Where do I even start with this one? First, the ludicrousness of holding third graders to some standard of accomplishment in art so that they can be graded. At that age, and in that setting, art should be fun, not another strait jacket. Second, the idea that painting to music will help “stimulate different areas of the brain to synthesize information” is pure BS. Another example of pop ed psych at work.

    Third is somewhat off the main track, but caught my attention — academic rigour. Here, it’s apparently a way of saying that we’re asking too much of the kiddies and restricting their ability to express themselves. What it’s usually intended to mean is observing standards of research and analysis — not exactly a necessity in the third grade.

    I love the way educational “research” manages to co-opt and distort everything it comes across. But it does makes for a lot of interesting fads, none of which ultimately have any impact on the quality of public education.

  2. xanthippa Says:

    Thank you!

    What this particular teacher meant by ‘academic rigour’ is nothing less than actually teaching the RULES of GRAMMAR. Her professional opinion was that teaching kids what different parts of the speech were, when to use nominative or dative, are superfluous, and that children should learn language by simply being exposed to it….

    Frankly, I do think that no longer teaching such things as grammar does a lot to lower our educational standard. Especially when the teacher mangles the grammar in her speech – and when writing assignment or test questions.

  3. Catana Says:

    I have no idea what nominative and dative are. In fact, the whole business of parts of speech and diagramming of sentences slipped out of my brain without leaving a mark. There are ways to teach grammar that make sense, but they have to include regular exposure to good writing. Text books are usually terrible examples of writing, and for many kids, that’s just about all the reading they do. When reading is infrequent, boring, and tied strictly to classroom work, it becomes labor rather than pleasure.

    Years ago, my husband, who taught high school English composition, remarked on how many students could quote chapter and verse on grammar, but couldn’t write an intelligible sentence.

  4. xanthippa Says:

    You are correct: kids must read well written materials. And, it is very important that there be a balance between ‘rules’ and ‘application’ and ‘fun’.

    Not knowing what your school system is like, I can only explain that here, most grade school teachers PRIDE themselves on NOT teaching ANY grammar rules whatsoever. The really bad part is that many of these very teachers do not use correct grammar when they speek or write.

    Once, I got a note from a teacher that was 3/4 of page long, with no punctuation whatsoever – it was one run-on sentence without even an attempt to follow very basic rules of English. THAT teacher was ‘teaching’ my son English!

    I have seen TEACHERS mix up ‘they’re’ with ‘their’, ‘whose’ with ‘who’s’…and two (in my experience) COULD NOT explain when to use ‘whom’ as opposed to ‘who’ without looking it up. While I might not expect ‘the average person’ to have these ‘rules’ at their fingertips, I think that English teachers SHOULD.

    Many Aspie kids like rules. Rules help them make sense of ‘stuff’ – especially when they are learning to write longer pieces. Focusing on the rules of grammar can actually aid in forming sentences – but I do plan to write a bit about this in a post next week.

    One thing I should have mentioned: this ‘painting music’ incident did not occur in a public school system, but in a private school. We did not stay there long.

    • ann Says:

      Do you have any advice on private schools in Toronto for Aspie/gifted

      Xan says:
      I am not familiar with the Toronto environment – let me ask around for you.

  5. Lorraine Says:

    It was very interesting to read the mail posted on his site.
    I am tutoring spelling to a 10 and an 11 year old boy with Aspergers.
    Until I met these boys at the beinning of 2007, I had never heard of the condition.
    I am amazed at how intelligent these boys are compared to other ‘normal’ children. The loves facts and tells me things that outstand me that a youing boy of his ag could know those things.
    The reason these boys are coming to me is that they have problems with reading and writing. They were at the very bottom of there classes at first and have now come to second top, and fourth from the top.
    One teacher commented to the parent, “How can she teach him 10 words in one hour and I can’t teach him one word in a week.

    I hope my crazy methods will work for others as well, and that is why I have decided to post here, who knows, maybe the ideas might be helpful to someone else

    We don’t do spelling when theyare here in the way that you would expect. We invent things we are going to d the week before, so that they knows next week what we are doing before they come here, this seems to be pretty important, planning ahead. The boys come here on different days to each other.

    For one boy we made a coffee table that his mother is so proud of she nearly cried. Another time he did a lovely painting in oils using my good oil paints and a big canvas. On this he painted a dragon, it was beautiful. Next he got to use real tools and made a four piece candle holder complete with candles in little dishes. The list goes on.

    Back to the table. We went to the local op-shop and bought a “daggy coffee table” for three dollars. Then we bought a pile of plates, about 20, in his favourite colours. He chose the plates himself, not me. The plan was to use tools and sander to refresh the table, and break the plates to use as tiles to do a mosiac on top.
    Well went back to my place and for every word he spelt correctly three times, he got to go outside, place a plate in the bag and break it with a hammer. It wasn’t too long before he had enough smashed china to make the top of the table. He spelt a lot of words, had a lot of fun and laughter, and overall enjoyed himself. That part took two visits each for one hour.

    The following week he got to work on the wood with with my small electric sander. Same thing, spell the word and get to do a section of the table. That took a couple of weeks. The exciting thing for him then was to be able to do a drawing on the table.
    The folowing week he worked out his design and the pieces he would put in the places he chose. The week after that he glued his pieces where he thought they would belong, however that was a slow process and it took two weeks also.
    The following week he got to grout his tiles. That took a long time and we had arranged to ring his Mum when it was finished. He had done a beautiful job on it. This also had a dragon. He had chosen his own colours and I was a bit dissapointed when he chose the colours he did, but I didn’t say so, and it was just as well I didn’t because his table is wonderful.
    The project took a whole term, he learnt all his words, wrote several sentences each day, gained confidence in the class room. He became a bit more friendly with his teacher and so the tantrums and frustration have lessened.
    Other things we did were collecting a bucket full of gumnuts, putting them through a polisher and used the colourful little things to make a fish statue, he did a beautiful job.
    What comes through to me is that if there is a reason or a reward that appeals, he ceases to find study to be so painful. It works well.
    I have only two students with aspergers, but I have found them both to be very interested in making things that they can use, being very creative as they do, and if not interferred with will do a very good job. The important thing is to plan ahead so that when they get here they know what to expect. If I slip up on that aspect of it they don’t seem to emit the same enthusiasm. They seem to feel let down and I get guilty.
    Of course as everyone will know, thay are not too keen on instruction, so drawing and planning ahead eliminates the need for further instruction.
    Well I hope you don’t mind my sticking my beak in here, but I am so enthusiastic about the results and at how pleased the mothers and fathers are, I just wanted to share this.
    Thank you.

  6. ‘Motivating Asperger kids’ - a tutor’s story « Xanthippa’s Chamberpot Says:

    […] is an excellent account Lorraine has sent in, about her experiences of tutering two Aspie boys and SUCCEEDING by MOTIVATING them.  Please […]

  7. Sylvia Hyman Says:

    My heart is happy and it’s breaking. My grandson is 12, has Asperger’s and is failing, it is so very sad to see this amazing, interesting boy stagnant and unmotivated to learn. All the things you described are things that he would love to do. He is brilliant and I fear his future without education. I am happy to hear of someone with such a gift, I pray for someone for him just like you. Thank you for sharing your story, Sylvia

    • Sylvia Hyman Says:

      Please get in touch with me if anyone knows of a tutor like this in my area (Summerville SC) Thank you again, Sylvia

  8. Chris Says:

    I frankly believe the whole notion of putting kids who have completely unique learning strategies and talents into one building and expecting them to get the same things out of a lesson is absurd. There needs to be a restructuring of the whole “education system” (it hasn’t educated me, anyway) to an individual approach based model, via programs like khan academy. Everyone is able to learn at their own pace without a teacher wasting time giving the lesson to them. This way, when a kid has a question, the teacher has time to thoroughly work out the problem with them so they aren’t confused later on down the road. This is the future of education right here, it just comes down to a question of when we realize it is in our best interest.

    • xanthippa Says:


    • xanthippa Says:

      In the very first post to my blog that I ever posted – 6 1/2 years ago (has it really been that long?!?!?) – that was the very topic I chose to raise…

      Though, rather than the tree in a forest making a sound example, which gets very very tricky with what does ‘sound’ mean – just listen to the Feuynman rumination on the topic, I chose the ‘I am therefore I think’ bit, which is, in my never humble opinion, is a load of dingo’s kidneys and does not stand up to critical scrutiny of an intelligent human being over the age of 5.

      But, and for exactly the reasons you raise, is is useful in helping us define the ‘baseline’ – if you will – of our ability to ‘know’ and as such is a useful calibration tool for all scientific inquiries.

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