Okay so I’ve never had to teach piano to a child like this before but I have just spent the last year working 1:1 with a child (who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder and ADHD), for 25 hours a week (when I’m not teaching piano/voice). Mine was aged 9. I’ve done a lot of further study and reading into autism and behaviour, as I’m now on the road to becoming a qualified school teacher.
The first thing to remember is that emotionally he will be younger than kids his age, regardless of what age he is. Every case is different but you usually need to use tone and language appropriate to a much younger child than their actual age. Although, as a general rule – simple and clear language is important and address every instruction with their name at the front. Do NOT repeat instructions over and over again – say them once, and give them time to process it. If you do need to repeat something, do it with the exact same wording; different wording can be interpreted as a whole new question or instruction and add to their processing time. Adding more new sentences and words to their head while they’re already processing your first instruction will just put them into overload. Overload = escape tactics, and if he is restrained or blocked in, you will never calm him down – this only adds fuel to the fire. If he’s in this mood in a lesson, you probably won’t get him back except in his own time.
As for you as a teacher, from a pedagogical point of view, your basic framework should consist of breaking everything down into clear, numbered steps (i.e. step 1, write the fingers and notes in; step 2, try the right hand, step 3 try the left, etc. although this might not even be broken down enough). Following that, break down your lesson into small chunks with clear targets for each timed chunk. Allow him to have a brain break in the middle of the lesson where he can pause for 3-5 minutes and switch off from piano. Try to recognise that he will be a visual learner, not an auditory or written learner; if you’re using notes on a staff, try using resources with bigger notes that have the letter names printed on them, and make sure he always has a separate diagram of his hands with finger numbers on. Get multicoloured sticky notes and stick a different colour to each key on the piano, making sure to only label the notes he will have to use, to avoid the multitude of unnecessary notes that might overload him. Finally, set up a reward system (stickers, sweets, whatever works really) and set a clear and, importantly, quantified target and tell him exactly what he will earn for achieving it. If this needs to be one sweet every five minutes for just attempting what you ask, then great.
All of this stuff might seem silly or strange or even obvious, and sorry if it seems like I’m trying to tell you how to be a piano teacher, but the thing with behaviour is that 90% of bad behaviour happens when a child feels overwhelmed or unengaged, and this happens when the child isn’t able to access the learning being presented to them. Get them engaged in learning that is achievable to them and lots of behaviour will go away. Autism itself is a brain condition, NOT a mental health condition; he’s literally wired differently to you or I. And learning about how Autists learn is totally separate to learning how other children learn. The above things are only a start – autistic children show more differences than similarities from case to case, and it has to be personal and rewarding to him. Make it especially clear in simple terms directed at him by name, that you won’t accept that behaviour. Remember that if his mum restrains him and chases him, he probably feels much safer to let off steam when you’re there than when you’re not.
In terms of specific advice about how to involve and support his parent, and gain her support too, try to get some time to chat to her separately too, when he’s not even in the house if possible. Explain to her that the best way to diffuse running-away situations is to give him all the freedom he needs to do so, within the bounds of safety. And do not restrain. He well feel attacked and resort to swearing or hitting or trying to escape again. It might get him back in the house in the short term but it will never stop him from running out of the house. If she wants a recognised approach to teaching him a new acceptable social behaviour (i.e. not running out of the house for safety) suggest that she looks up ‘Social Stories’, they are an excellent strategy for giving a child more information about certain situations that they don’t understand or react wrongly to. Finally, insist that she includes the boys’ school in these discussions if she hasn’t already done so; if they know that he is running out of the house at home, they will also try to find out more about that from him in ways that they are trained to (such as using an ELSA – Emotional Learning Support Assistant).
Finally, remember that as sad as it can be, if your lessons are overwhelming for him, or he sees them as an opportunity to have atteniton for acting up, it may be that learning an instrument is not the right thing for him at this stage in his personal development. It would lose you the income, I know, but you shouldn’t be afraid to refuse a booking if you don’t feel safe or happy to teach it, and it may in the short term be what’s best for the child too.
Hope that gives some insight. If you need more advice, I’ll try to recommend some books on behaviour or autism later on.