One step at the time, piano softly reaches autistic children

Access to musical practice for autistic children remains marginal. Françoise Dorocq, the piano teacher behind Dolce method, especially designed for them, is determined to make this change. Smoothly, but no without any determination.

One step at the time, piano softly reaches autistic children
Mains d'enfant sur piano, © Getty / Sam Edwards

A little girl at the piano, a teacher beside her: the child puts her hands on the keyboard, removes them, knocks the keys, gets excited. A soft and calm voice utters: "Come on, sweetheart. We'll try this piece one time, and then you can play whatever you want." At first glance, this is nothing out of the ordinary. A piano lesson taking between a patient, understanding teacher and a little girl who has trouble staying focused. But in reality, this is a private and customized lesson, and Françoise Dorocq is a piano teacher for autistic children.

Françoise Dorocq founded APTE France in 2006 to raise music awareness through piano lesson in autistic children from all backgrounds. This association has a double purpose: "My approach is both creative and therapeutic. Autism is a spectrum, there are multiple developmental disorders that vary a lot from one child to another. Music soothes them and helps managing their emotions while improving concentration, coordination, stimulating their cognitive skills and allowing them to develop special abilities. For all of them, it’s a way to communicate with their surroundings, especially for non-verbal autistic people. It's one more step towards socialization and a field where their creativity can express itself."

Autism is an invisible disability, but it nonetheless inhibits the Childs’s development and learning. Children with autism suffer many impairments: hypersensitivity, atony, apraxia, lack of focus, absence of bodily schema. To teach them requires a profound knowledge of their disability. Yet, the music language affects them more directly and more easily than any other. And while autism remains a controversial issue on many fronts, researchers unanimously emphasize autistic individuals’ musical affinities and abilities.

Françoise Dorocq understood this a long time ago, when she met her first autistic student who was 12 years old at the time: "She was a friend’s daughter, and she asked me to introduce her to the piano. Back then, I knew nothing about this disability and the difficulties parents faced in integrating their children into a so called "normal life”. It was in the nineties, a time when, in France, autistic people were systematically institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals." And to offer them music lessons was pure madness, she was told.

The work with my little student made me understand that any kind of pedagogic method I had been using until then was all too useless. The functioning of an autistic child has nothing to do with a neurotypical child. I had to question my teaching principles and dig more information." In the United States, Francoise Dorocq is trained in the Son Rise method, one of the cognitive and behavioural developmental methods recognized by today’s French Haute Autorité de la Santé for autistic children care. Françoise transposed its principles to piano teaching to develop the "Dolce" method, a musical term meaning ‘’soft’’ and implying a progressive approach.

“Each student is different. Some are verbal, some are not. The most important thing is to start communicating with an autistic child, which is essentially contended in eye contact. This first step into establishing reciprocal trust happens when you manage to capture his gaze, to connect to his own world - through play or imitation. Then, depending on their reactions, you have to adapt and develop a strategy to create desire in them and to make them react.”

An agile method, adapted to each situation

When it comes to introducing an autistic student to music, there is no pre-existing model. As a general condition, Françoise Dorocq emphasizes the importance of setting up reassuring learning conditions. "The workplace must be adapted to the child's level of sensitivity, it should be a neutral location with very little external potential disruption to optimize focus. Any presence at their side can be experienced as an intrusion. Playing and imitating stereotypes in which some children find themselves in allows us to create a bridge between our world and theirs. The bond starts to exists when they look at you: there and then, you begin to exist."

Once this connection is established, you can progressively introduce new element into this notion of imitation. This is what will lead them to do something different than what they usually do: explore the piano, integrate new instructions. Françoise Dorocq says “This acceptance takes a lot of time for some of them, for others less." An evolution specific to each child according to his own specificities and which unfolds "softly", through play and bodywork, before introducing musical notions. "Children on the spectrum have no body schema or a very little apprehension of it. We must help them becoming aware of different parts of their body and at the same time work on a relationship of trust, to introduce learning. In learning the piano, however, a few compulsory steps must be taken: marks on the piano, the hands’ position and coordination, the writing and reading of notes. They are adapted to each student’s specificities: for some, learning the notes doesn’t make sens and it’s not an obstacle to the learning process. They’ll just learn to play by ear. But what is common to all different types of autistic disorder is an acute and high-functioning memory. We can always rely on this for the child to move forward. Knowing the student, transforming his key strengths into learning tools, reviving his skills, all of this at the core of my approach", explains Francoise Dorocq.

Make music available for all

Françoise Dorocq has been working with autistic people for twenty years and has observed that the availability of musical practice for this particular demographic remains marginal in France, despite the often exceptional capacities autistic people may have when it comes to music. ‘’Twenty years ago, we didn't even talk about offering musical practice to autistic individuals as part of conservatories programs. Today the situation is improving, but it remains exceptional. Since 2005, the enrollment of a disabled student as part of a conservatory is included in the texts, but in practice, conservatories are still not inclusive by definition. Obviously, the first reason is the lack of qualified staff"

So, when asked why would one want to open a school dedicated exclusively to autistic children, Françoise Dorocq explains that she does not intend to keep the benefits of the Dolce method solely constrained within her music school. Through the APTE association, she has trained 60 teachers in France, Belgium and Canada, now working hand in hand with conservatories as well as medical and educational institutes on the specific training of music teachers. And this is all the more relevant since the Dolce method can be applied to the learning of other musical instruments.

I want to change society's gaze on this syndrome, to show that people with autism should have the same access to culture as anyone else. And to achieve this, it is necessary to move away from the notion of private lessons given within the association. Because even if it is not very expensive, not all families can be part of it. So the solution lies in municipal music schools." With more and more teachers trained in the Dolce method in Enghien les Bains, Lille, Rennes, Aubervilliers or Dourdain, the list of inclusive conservatories is increasing. And this is just the beginning, says Françoise Durocq: "We need to change society’s mindset tp convince elected officials and facility managers to include disabled individuals in the landscape. Politics should be here to help: elected officials are here to participate to the citizens well-being and disability assistance is entirely part of their mission.”

To learn more:

AUTISME ET MUSIQUE : Un duo harmonieux, Raymond Bossut, Françoise Dorocq, éditions L'Harmattan