I had an instant message conversation with a fellow bagpiper this morning about a particular person who had inquired about instruction through Facebook. He told me that he thought that this person was autistic and he was concerned. It’s interesting that he said that to me in particular as I have been teaching an autistic student for the past 13 years.
A little history: The phone rang back then with a father inquiring about bagpipe lessons for his son. I told the father that I was accepting students and that I did teach kids. We made an appointment to meet that week. On the given night, the father and his son, Alex. showed up. I noticed that there was something unusual about Alex. He was a little hyper and didn’t speak and wasn’t able to hold a conversation. I asked the father what was his condition. His father told me that he was autistic. To that point in my life, I had never met anyone that was autistic. I had no idea what to do and how to do it, but I told the father that I would give it a try.
Alex and I sat on the floor “Indian style” for the first 3 years. If he was sitting on my floor, then he wasn’t wandering around my house. What I did notice about Alex was that he had a photographic memory and remembered just about everything he saw and heard. I also discovered early in our relationship that he didn’t like to be left behind. Whenever he had a “moment” where I was losing his attention, the only thing I had to do was start playing my practice chanter and he would fall right back into the activity we were doing. We started the process by imitation. Because of his photographic memory ability, I had him imitate the fingering. As he developed, we related the fingering to the notes on the page and, over a period of time, we were able to relate the rhythm to the notation on the page. Today, he can sight read just about anything. Alex made the transition to pipes without any problem at all.
When he was ready to play in a band, I invited him out for band practice. After all, he could play most of our parade tunes. He fit in wonderfully. Because he was incapable of having a conversation with anyone, he came to band practice to WORK. He was a great band member. He played most, if not all, of our gigs. When the band broke up, I sent him to another pipe band, where he has been ever since.
Since that time, Alex has learned to play all of his band music and a variety of 4pt 2/4 marches, some Strathspey and Reel sets, some Jigs and some Hornpipes. He has also competed in solo competitions with the EUSPBA. Though he likes the harder music, he has decided that competition isn’t for him as he gets stressed out too much. (All of this is related to me by his “one-on-one”, named Fran. Fran is a nanny who has been to just about every lesson in the last 15 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if she plays undercover!)
For any of you who believe that an autistic student isn’t capable of learning to play the bagpipes, you might need to rethink that. As I said, I had no experience before Alex. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably do the same. I truly believe that Alex’s life has been enhanced by his bagpipe playing.
Gary Guth is a professional bagpiper with over 45 years of playing experience and has been teaching bagpipes full time for the last 20 years. He has written "Bagpipes For Beginners", "the Bagpipe Hymnal", and " A Piper's Christmas".