Catching Dr. Stephen Shore is a bit like catching a sparrow. While he is constantly connected through digital means, his physical body is teaching, speaking and making presentations world wide on a seemingly ongoing basis. While he was actually home recently, I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation with Stephen. Here, first, is a look into the history of Dr. Shore.
Diagnosed at an early age with “Atypical Development with strong autistic tendencies” Dr. Shore was viewed by professionals as “too sick” to be treated on an outpatient basis and recommended for institutionalization. That notion was completely rejected by his parents and although he remained nonverbal until the age of four, with much help from his parents, teachers, and others, Stephen progressed and, as an adult, surpassed all outside expectations and completed his doctoral dissertation at
BostonUniversity. His dissertation focused on matching best practice to the needs of people on the autism spectrum. Recently, Dr. Shore accepted a professorship at
AdelphiUniversity teaching courses in special education and autism.
Kathleen: Thank you so much Stephen for taking the time for this interview. It’s so nice to have the opportunity to ask you about your book, your work with autism/asperger’s awareness and music. I know how valuable your time is and I certainly appreciate it.
First of all regarding your book, ‘Beyond the Wall’, it seems that you use the wall as a metaphor for a challenge that a person with autism has. It is an impaired communication….autism is not the person. It is just a challenge to get through to connect with the person on the other side of that wall. Am I understanding that correctly?
Stephen: Yes exactly.
Kathleen: In your books, your writings and your presentations, I just love the way your sense of humor shines through. It comes across so clearly. I believe that family members and close friends of many on the spectrum….they understand that very well, but I think the majority of the general public is positively clueless about how funny, fun and charismatic that people on the spectrum, particularly Asperger’s, tend to be. Do you find that that is the case?
Stephen: Oh yes. It’s definitely a myth that people on the spectrum don’t have much of a sense of humor.
Kathleen: Right, right, and a very refined one at that! Okay, do you have anything that you would like to share from your book while we’re on that?
Stephen: Sure! I wrote the book in an auto-biographical structure to talk about what life is like on the autism spectrum. To talk about educating students with autism…providing music lessons, the sensory issues as well as addressing the challenges that come with relationships, selfadvocacy and disclosure. It talks about what life is like for those on the spectrum, and it discusses advocating a successful transition into adulthood. I talk about giving music lessons and as a matter of fact I’m one of the two, that I know of, who specializes in music lessons to students on the autism spectrum. That other person is on the spectrum as well.
Kathleen: From your webinar with Craig Evans of Autism Hangout, something you said that I found very interesting, is that you found it is easier to teach music to children who ARE on the autism spectrum rather than neuro typical children.
Stephen: Yes, that’s correct.
Kathleen: Now why is that?
Stephen: Well, at least to me, these children are more predictable and I seem to have a better sense of how to get them interested, or if they are already interested how to guide that interest into something that makes them able to play a musical instrument.
Kathleen: Okay. Now a lot of teachers for neuro typical children…they want to wait until a child has good written and veral skills before beginning music lessons. How does that translate for you? How do you get past the verbage that’s needed for teaching? How does that work?
Stephen: Well, in summary what I do is I create routines involving the elements of music. So actually from a child’s point of view creating things, building things, lining things up. These children enjoy form and lining things up. So instead of seeing that as a challenge to overcome, I use it as a strength to build on to teach the skill.
Kathleen: It seems you’re talking about a sort of ‘building block philosophy’ of music theory.
Stephen: It’s certainly a lot more fun…and teaching music that way, it also provides an opportunity to work on a lot of other various skills. Functional interactions…Taking turns…language.
Kathleen: Okay, working on other related skills…..That brings me to another question. I’m in contact with an autism researcher, Michael Leventhal, who is getting together a group of researchers, teachers and parents to look at video modeling as a teaching tool for children with autism. Have you used video in teaching with your children?
Stephen: No I’ve not used that yet.
Kathleen: Do you think that could potentially be an effective means of teaching children with autism, or do you think that might actually reinforce any of the behaviours you’re trying to diminish?
Stephen: Well it depends on how it’s used. I can see how recording a session with a student would be very helpful to see what you are doing and what you would want to change. I can see how that would be very helpful.
Kathleen: Your work in music has been very successful in teaching childen with autism. My experiences teaching in early childhood classrooms was that when something is put in a song it was always much easier for young children to pick up concepts. Almost as though it’s another language.
Stephen: Yes it certainly is. Some say that music is a universal language, which, I find …it isn’t. As far as we’re concerned it’s a universal western language, but if you take someone who has grown up in places such as India or China or various other places….the music structure is so completely different, it sounds nice….but they don’t really get the meaning. Like we don’t get the meaning behind the music of the middle east for example. It’s very much dependent on what we’ve grown up hearing.
Kathleen: Yes. That’s very true…because music is an emotional connection isn’t it?
Stephen: Right. And I’ve taken a class in the music of the middle east and we in the west have about 12 tones… and they have about 96 to 104 because they use quarter tones.
Stephen: So of course they have many more keys than we have.
Kathleen: Pretty much the way that the spoken language tends to be more complex than the western languages tend to be.
Stephen: They have more keys and they also have more tonalities. We have major and minor and that’s about it. They make use of their other tonalities and they all have meaning.
Kathleen: Okay, now when you’re teaching children applied music and they’re on the spectrum, do you stick to western music necessarily or do you find that if they really don’t have an attachment yet, enjoy different types of music other than western…that they may gravitate toward one type or another?
Stephen: Well, I really haven’t tried other types of music, mostly because western is the one that I know well enough to actually teach it to someone else.
Kathleen: Oh I see.
Stephen: And we started off quite early learning and reading notation. So my instruction is notation based rather than ear based. So that way we’re starting out with the first seven letters of the alphabet. So we kind of are fiddling around with those.
Kathleen: Sounds fun. Now where on the spectrum do your music students tend to be? Sort of towards the middle?
Stephen: Oh they’re all over the place.
Stephen: Yes, some of them are nonverbal and pretty significantly affected. And some have asperger’s syndrome and high functioning.
Kathleen: Quote, unquote, a little on the quirky side…?
Stephen: Yes, a little on the quirky side…in the middle…and all over the spectrum. Just like people who aren’t on the autism spectrum. Some of them could be professional musicians, some just play for fun, some take it a bit higher…and others it just doesn’t seem to work.
Kathleen: Now with those who are extremely affected by autism, do you find that their gains in other areas go along with….is there a correlation between their musical gains and general cognitive gains?
Stephen: Actually I probably haven’t connected enough with the other parts of their lives to get a clear picture of that.
Kathleen: I see. I just thought that may be rather interesting to take a look at.
Stephen: Yes, that would be.
Kathleen: But it is very interesting that music is a very powerful way to make a connection.
Stephen: Oh yes.
Kathleen: Okay…the dissertation you did on different treatment methods, could you talk a little bit about that for me? About how these different styles, rather than sticking with one particular method for a child, might have a sort of flow to it?
Stephen: Sure. Yes, what I’ve found is that people tend to get stuck in their various approaches to the exclusion of others and to the detriment of children…..
Dr. Stephen shore interview-Part 2