August 18, 2020

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The iPod-Hurricane-Freight-Train Experience

“Imagine being tied to the front of a freight train during a hurricane with an iPod on the highest volume of the most annoying song you know.”

- Melanie Johanson, from the article, "21 People Describe What Sensory Overload Feels Like" by The Mighty

This is a vivid description
of one woman’s experience with sensory overload

Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses is overstimulated. It can happen to anyone, but commonly happens to those with autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other conditions. 

“Imagine being tied to the front of a freight train during a hurricane with an iPod on the highest volume of the most annoying song you know.”

Melanie Johanson

Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you do decide to purchase from one such link, I make a small commission at no extra charge to you. I promise to use this commission to keep providing valuable content to you!

Sensory Processing Differences

When sensory processing is working as it should, sensory input (information from the senses) is processed in the brain and goes through "filters" that categorize it, letting us know which is the most deserving of our attention.

A lot can go wrong in this process. When people have trouble with sensory modulation, the brain's responsiveness to sensory stimuli is altered, resulting in over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to certain stimuli. When people have problems with sensory discrimination, they have trouble making sense of the sensory input. They may hear everything all at once without being able to focus on the person talking to them, or they may experience the sensation of touch without being able to tell the difference between objects.

Hypersensitivity

People with hypersensitivity can have iPod-hurricane-freight-train experiences on a daily basis. 

When students are hypersensitive or experiencing sensory overload:

  • every sound can be amplified and many sounds taken in at the same time, without a “filter” to help focus the attention on just one

  • lights can be painfully bright

  • certain smells may be nauseating or overwhelming, even though others may not even notice them

  • the taste or texture of certain foods may be intolerable

  • the texture of certain clothes may be excruciating on the skin

Hyposensitivity

Other individuals experience hyposensitivity, meaning that some or all of their senses are understimulated. Students who are hyposensitive may not perceive certain sensory information fully or even at all. Not receiving enough input from their environments naturally, they may create or seek after their own input. 

Students who are hyposensitive may:

  • have trouble determining what or where objects are just by looking at them. They may need to walk around and touch everything before they “settle down.”

  • try to stimulate their hearing by seeking out sounds like sirens or the hum of electrical appliances, or by banging, tapping, tearing, or humming/stimming vocally (note: this can also be done by students experiencing sensory overwhelm to try and block out input they are receiving)

  • not feel pain or temperature

  • enjoy pressure, seeking out hugs, massages, tight clothes, wrestling, and being under heavy objects

  • enjoy spinning, swinging, or rocking long periods of time without becoming dizzy

  • seek out all types of movement

  • not notice internal body cues such as hunger or having to use the restroom

  • have trouble knowing where they are in space (proprioception) and therefore be prone to stumbling, leaning, bumping into things, dropping things, etc

Natural Adaptations: Stimming

Given that the human body is adaptive and resilient, "stimming" has naturally emerged as a way to provide relief from sensory over- and under-stimulation. Stimming (short for "stimulating") involves rhythmic or repetitive movements or sounds, such as rocking back and forth, flapping the hands, or humming loudly. It is an adaptive behavior that should be facilitated (more on this later) and not discouraged.

In addition to the adaptive behaviors used by individuals with sensory processing difficulties, the learning environment can and should be modified to mitigate sensory overload or provide much needed sensory input. 

Making your music studio "sensory friendly"

Fortunately, you don’t have to bulldoze your studio and start over from scratch in order to make it sensory friendly. A few strategic considerations and swaps can go most of the way in creating a welcoming environment that meets your students’ needs.

Here are some quick ways to address sensory processing difficulties:

Visuals

Lighting 

Avoid using overhead fluorescent lights. It is well-established at this point that these lights can have a negative effect on even neurotypical learners. The incessant buzzing sound and subtle flickering can be uncomfortable and distracting for hypersensitive students.

Instead, get a few lamps and space them throughout the room. You can easily vary the level of lighting in the room according to each student’s needs by turning some or all of them off. Use incandescent instead of fluorescent bulbs.

I use lamps by default to create a calming, sensory friendly environment, but I can help a student who is experiencing acute sensory overload by turning them off completely.

These column lamps are my favorite. I have 3 in my studio:

They're sensory friendly because:

  1. They're beautiful
  2. The shade is made of resresilient material that has a lot of give but won’t rip easily under curious fingers
  3. They are light but sturdy, so they won’t break or hurt anyone if they tip over.

If your room has overhead fluorescent lights and you can't get lamps, you can cover them with fluorescent light filters like this:

Use natural light whenever you can! Make sure you have curtains or shades that can be drawn in case of sensory overload. Blackout curtains are best for this purpose.

Note: for hyposensitive students, you can try brighter lighting to “awaken” the nervous system.

Clothing

Avoid wearing clothes with busy patterns or unusual features, such as cutouts or visible zippers. Consider avoiding jewelry, as it can be visually distracting and tempting to grab.

Clutter

Keep the space neat and organized with minimal clutter. Clutter is not only distracting but can also be very tempting for students to explore when you’re trying to teach. 

Whenever possible, put books and objects in drawers or cabinets instead of on open bookshelves. You can cover these with a curtain attached by velcro or a tension rod if you don’t want to buy new furniture. 

Decor

You may love the art on your walls and the statues on your shelves, but some of those things may need to go. Make sure there is a lot of blank space on the walls. The less elements competing for your student’s attention, the better.

Bonus - Lava Lamp!

Get a lava lamp. Its movement can be calming and enjoyable as a visual stim, and your student can take “lava breaks” from time to time between instruction.

Sounds

Do as much as is within your control to limit distracting sounds in the teaching space.

 Eliminate even seemingly imperceptible sounds such as the hum of electrical appliances. (Again, eliminate fluorescent lights because of the constant buzzing sound they give off.)

Be prepared to play and speak softly if necessary.

Even if you’re able to eliminate all the sounds you can think of, have noise-reducing headphones available for sound-sensitive students:

For hyposensitive students, use visual aids to support auditory information and instruction.
For example, write on a whiteboard as you talk or use images or drawings of what you’re describing.

Scents

Use “unscented” everything! Don’t wear perfume or cologne. Don’t use an essential oil diffuser.

If you teach from home, try not to cook aromatic foods around your student’s lesson time. If you have to do so, warn them before they come inside that they might smell dinner cooking.

Safety (People)

As a way of understanding the environment, some students may pick up items, move them around, drop them, push them, etc.
Make sure there is nothing that can tip over easily; or if it can, make sure that it won’t break or hurt someone if it falls on them (like the lamps from above).

Some students also like to climb. Be aware that a student might try to stand on the bench, on top of the piano, or on other climbable furniture, and be ready to stop them before they can do that. 

Arrange furniture in a way that minimizes the chances of bumping into sharp or hard surfaces.

Safety (Property)

Keep delicate or valuable objects somewhere out of sight.
Students may be unable to stop themselves from handling objects that they find interesting in a way that can break or damage them.
You know that beautiful, handmade instrument one of your students brought you from their trip abroad? Your student might think it’s really cool and want to take it apart to see how it works. It’s best to keep it out of reach. 

This might sound harsh, but I’m of the mind that if something gets broken, it’s your fault for not storing it properly. Trust me, it’s like Murphy’s Law of Piano Lessons - if something can break, it will. This is not to say that all students with special needs will break your stuff - but you do need to take precautions and be on the lookout.

Fidgets and Sensory Toys

As I mentioned before, stimming is natural, adaptive, and should be supported. One way to do this is to provide outlets and opportunities to stim. 

Fidgets, also known as sensory toys or stimmy toys, are objects that provide sensory input and feedback when used. They can provide sensory stimulation to hyposensitive students, and they can be calming to students experiencing sensory overwhelm.

Keep a bucket or “sensory box” of fidgets, and offer it to your students when they arrive, on breaks, or when they seem “stimmy.” You can also keep a fidget on the piano or bench for students to use while they play.

Fidgets are an indispensable accommodation that you should provide in your sensory friendly studio. Many students need to stim, so giving them an outlet to do so is healthy and necessary.

Try to choose several different types and textures, because each one can serve a different purpose depending on the moment, student, and sensory need. 

Here are some ideas for fidgets and sensory toys:

The "jiggle" of the individual threads can be calming and engaging as a visual stim. You can also use them in whole body movement activities or as visual aids for theory concepts (for example, as a stand-in for notes).

These are like silly putty, but without the “wet” feeling, and they don't stick to clothes. Supervise students who are prone to mouthing - these may be tempting to put in the mouth.

These provide contrasting tactile input via the rough and smooth sides. They also provide bonus auditory input via the sound made when the two sides are pulled apart. I love these for students who tend to be "rough" with toys, as they're nearly impossible to rip or break.

Tactile input via the texture of the "accordion," visual input via the accordion and bending of the tubes, auditory input via the "pop" of the accordion. Bonus fine motor skills work by chaining the tubes together.

These are perfect for when students don't want auditory input. They provide a gentle and flowy visual stim. They can be used in countless dances and movement games as well. Easily washable.

These are an unexpected favorite in my studio. (I actually ordered one for my kitchen and they turned out to be terrible for dishes, but great as a sensory toy). They provide visual input from the floppiness and movement of the bristles as well as tactile input from the bristles. Easily washable.

The texture provides tactile input, the curling motion provides visual input, and the "snap" of the bracelet when it straightens out or "slaps" onto your wrists provides auditory input. Demonstrate on yourself a few times, and students are usually delighted by these.

These are soft and squishy. Students can manipulate them as a sensory toy, but you can also get creative and use them in your instruction. They fit perfectly on a piano key so I use them all the time for keyboard awareness games. 

"Sensory mats" are used by occupational therapists and in classrooms for sensory stimulations. This is a cost-effective substitute that you can find easily online or in a local home store.
You can put it on the bench so the student can graze their hands over it, or you can have them take their shoes off and put it under their feet while they play. I've had great success getting reluctant students to sit at the piano by placing this on the bench. Also easily washable. 

 For students who are prone to mouthing objects, consider keeping a few sensory chew necklaces (“chewelry”) onhand. These are products made of food-grade silicone that are meant to be chewed and can be worn around the neck for easy access. Definitely check with parents before giving anyone a sensory chew, sanitize before and after use, and use one per student (as opposed to using only one for multiple students).

Movement Opportunities

A less obvious element of a sensory friendly studio is opportunities for movement. Some students literally require this in order to learn. Here are some simple ways to do this:

Bands

Wrap a Theraband around the legs of the piano bench to keep feet occupied while planing:


Balls

Keep an exercise ball in the room to bounce on during breaks or even use for creative instruction.

Get creative with your instruction. Use movement activities that engage the whole body and get the student away from the bench.

Postural Accommodations

This goes without saying for all students, but make sure to provide postural accommodations - have an adjustable bench and a box for the feet of smaller students. 

This is the best one I've been able to find at a reasonable price point. It's easy to put together, sturdy, and relatively easy to adjust.  It also has storage space.


I don't personally own this (I use wooden boxes that I made, or else I'd buy this one), but I've heard great things about this foot rest made specifically for pianists. It has five levels of adjustment, the adjustments lock in place, and it has a carrying handle. 

In addition to posture, consider positioning - does your student need to be sitting at the piano bench right now?
Can she do this activity from a different, preferred position, such as on a bean bag chair
with a clipboard?
Students can even work lying under the bench with the work taped up on the underside!

 

Pressure

Deep pressure can work wonders when students are hyposensitive (sensory-seeking), anxious, or experiencing sensory overwhelm. The response to pressure varies by individual and situation. 

Here are a few easy ways to provide it:

This is like a warm, supportive hug and can help students feel calm and focused. It comes in a few sizes, so you may want to wait until you have a highly sensory-seeking student to order one. You can also suggest one to the parents and have them bring it to each lesson instead of storing one at your studio. Of course, ask parents before putting a compression vest on a student.

These can give much-needed sensory input and feel comforting for some students. They come in many different weights and colors. This one is machine washable on gentle (hang dry only). Only use after asking the parent. If students like the sensation, you can drape it over their laps or shoulders while they play. They are also great for relaxing during breaktime or recovering from meltdowns.

Reverse-Engineering Attention

If you’re like most teachers, you probably want to make sure you have a student’s attention before you start teaching them. This usually means that a student is sitting still, making eye contact with you, and keeping quiet.

When teaching students with special needs, you may want to reconsider your ideas of “readiness” and “listening behavior.”

This does not mean that you have to lower your standards. 

It means that you have an understanding of your students’ sensory needs and are able to accommodate different learning styles. 

Don’t wait until a student seems to be “paying attention” before you begin your instruction. Instead, provide sensory accommodations so that a student will have the chance to attend to you.

 Learning happens when students’ sensory needs are supported. If you've made your studio as sensory friendly as possible and the student still needs to stim, vocalize, bounce, or lay on the floor while receiving instruction, then allow that.

Take Action

Brainstorm five ways you can make your studio more sensory-friendly.

For example:

  1. Swap out overhead lights for lamps
  2. Acquire 5 different items (fidgets/sensory toys) for a sensory box
  3. Remove some decor to create more blank space
  4. Cover exposed storage areas like bookshelves with curtains
  5. Provide at least one go-to movement opportunity such as an exercise ball

You can make a HUGE impact on students’ comfort and learning by making a few strategic changes.

What Now? 

Now that you've made the environment sensory-friendly, it's time to implement a solid strategy for musical development.

See this article to learn how to teach note reading to your students with special needs.

Want more help?

I’ve put together a "first lesson cheat sheet" to show you how to assess, engage, and instruct your student with special needs. It includes:

  • an assessment map based on the four "types" of students with special needs that you'll most likely encounter
  • exact scripts for introducing C for one hand (Milestone 1)
  • musical enrichment activities for when students just don't want to sit at the bench
  • the first 3 songs of Milestone 1 FREE
  • troubleshooting advice

The scripts will show you exactly what to say when you sit down with your student at the piano, and they’ll address some common issues that come up in the process. They’ll also tell you when you can be sure it’s time to move on to the next Milestone.

Get your free scripts and songs by signing up below. Enter your email address, confirm your email, and you'll receive the PDF within a few hours.

Or find the Milestone Method books here.

About the author 

Selena Pistoresi

Selena is a lifelong pianist and piano teacher of over a decade. She owns a studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where she specializes in working with students with special needs. She equips teachers all over the world with the mindset, tools, and curriculum to teach students with special needs and help their studios flourish.

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  1. I've so enjoyed following you on instagram. I am struggling with a 7 year old student who has several brain tumours which challenges him to learn in a traditional way. He is such a beautiful student, but stretches me in every way possible. Most day's just sitting at the piano is a stretch. I'm trying to implement some of your strategies but am curious about your curriculum. I'm currently using the faber method. (very very loosely… mostly just improvising) I love seeing how you work with your students and it always inspires me to work harder to find a method that will resonate. Anyways, thanks for fresh ideas. 🙂

    1. Hi Lorita,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I’m glad you’re enjoying the social posts. I love how you recognize both the challenges and the beauty of working with a “nontraditional” student. I would be happy to talk to you more about this, learn more about your student, and help you come up with some strategies for him. You’re welcome to book a 30-min strategy session here: https://notable-piano.appointlet.com/s/30-minute-teacher-consultation or a 60-min session here: https://notable-piano.appointlet.com/s/60-minute-teacher-consultation-clone. Also happy to do a quick free 15-min call if you want to blast through some general ideas: https://notable-piano.appointlet.com/s/15-minute-intro.
      Whatever you decide, I wish you the best with your student and hope I can continue providing fresh ideas! Feel free to let me know if there are any topics you’d like me to cover in an upcoming blog or social post 🙂

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