“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
For as long as I can remember, my son has had a fascination with music. Whether it’s his CDs, his dancing, his ‘beatbox’ stim or even his recent habit of making up little songs, it’s always been there.
At times, this has been problematic. B’s ‘special interest’ in CDs (or crazed obsession as I call it) has seen him destroy a good many CDs in the house. Usually it is my CDs he destroys, although I gave up on being precious about them some time ago. It’s more difficult when we’re at someone else’s house. On holiday recently our hearts sank as we realised our beautiful holiday cottage had a bundle of CDs for our bundle of joy to scratch his way through.
Getting him past the entertainment section in supermarkets is a master class in route planning and deft aisle avoidance. And B’s ‘ human beatbox’ stim draws its fair share of stares out in public. He’s like a one man Public Enemy, in every sense of the word. He will also, without warning, break into a dance routine if he hears music he likes, regardless of where we are. His dancing is best described as ‘unique’, but I’ll give him credit- he puts his heart and soul into it. He recently gave me the slip in a shop, and when I tracked him down he was busting a move to a small gathering of amused (or is that bemused) on-lookers. Wouldn’t you love to be that un-self conscious?
Recently, B has taken to sitting and tapping out little, repetitive motifs and melodies on a keyboard or such like. Nothing elaborate, just four or five notes in a little, rhythmic pattern. He is able to remember these little tunes he’s made up, and return to them days later. Most significantly, he can spend up to fifteen minutes engaged in these activities. That’s a long time for my attention-free son.
Autism may be genetic, but musical ability almost certainly is not, if you ask me. Try as I might, I am unable to see where this natural affinity for music comes from. Not my wife (tone deaf), not me (despite my hopeless efforts to learn guitar in recent years) and not anyone else in the immediate family. Perhaps his love of music is inherited from me, if not his musical ability. I buy all sorts of CDs (and records, and downloads) and it’s never long before B gets his hands on them and begins to soak up the sounds, song names and (always) song lengths. Then he goes into school, keen to tell his T.A. about ‘his’ new CD of African Funk or something equally bizarre.
We decided to act upon this interest, and seek out someone who could offer music therapy sessions. I’ve read a little about the positive effects of music therapy and autistic children. A useful blog post came my way this week. It explained how, “Some of the most exciting developments in our field recently have involved music therapy and autism. Music therapy is a great fit with autism for a variety of reasons: Music encourages social interactions, is adaptable to people of all abilities, is multi-modal and engages us across multiple domains (motor, communication, cognitive, etc.), provides opportunities for success and is FUN and motivating!“
This sounded good to me, although you’d be surprised just how difficult it is to get hold of a music therapist in my area. We tried every avenue we could think of: school, the local authority, Autism Outreach, extensive web searches and much more. We posted on Twitter, Mumsnet and Facebook, but to no avail. If you are a music therapist in my particular part of the West Midlands, then stop hiding- you could be making a killing. Eventually, I stumbled upon an idea that was so blindingly obvious that I felt utterly stupid for not thinking of it earlier. Why not just call a standard music tutor and ask if they could offer anything? Two phone calls later and I had found a tutor interested in working with B. Her name is Karen and she teaches keyboard. Her experience with special needs children is not extensive, but she seemed clued up on the phone, asked the right questions and was happy to give it a go.
We’re under no illusions that our son is some sort of musical prodigy. I don’t expect him, aged five (and a ‘young’ five at that) to suddenly learn a musical instrument. There are no autism miracles, and this is not about that. But it might be an outlet for his energy. It might be a way of developing his communication skills, as he works with a new adult and it might become something he looks forward to. Most of all, it might be fun.
And so it was that we found ourselves outside Karen’s house on Wednesday evening. B had the usual effect on people he meets, in that the music teacher was utterly charmed by his angelic looks and sunny disposition. From the moment B greeted her with an excited, affectionate, “Hello Karen!”, like an old friend, he had won her over.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He gave his full name, the first part of which can be abbreviated.
“And what does your mummy call you?”
As we laughed about it later, my wife breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t said, “a pain in the arse”, or worse. Talking of which, one of his little songs recently had the simple, (half) rhyming refrain “I’m not a pain, I’m just the same.” He sang it all weekend, breaking our hearts every time he did so. Where does this come from? Does he know what he’s doing? Does he know how profoundly moving and spot-on and perceptive his words are?
The lesson itself was pretty much what I expected, though not necessarily what Karen expected. She made the (understandable) mistake that ‘normal rules apply’ as she started the lesson. It quickly became apparent to her that they did not. For pretty much the entire half hour, B bounced off the walls, barely able to sit still for more than a few moments. It was a stark reminder of how challenging B can be, and how adept we are at handling those challenges, particularly compared to a person new to B. Having said that, even with my intervention, we were unable to focus him on a particular activity for more than a few seconds.
Part of the problem was that the room was awash with intriguing keyboard equipment, laptops and other paraphernalia. He was, in retrospect, overwhelmed with choices, and must have thought all his birthdays had come at once with all those buttons to press. Usually, a computer is enough to completely distract his attention, without help from something that looks like it’s come out of a spaceship. B didn’t want any help from Karen whatsoever as he explored the keyboards. He didn’t want to be taught, he wanted to see if ‘Marimba’ sounded better than ‘Pizzicato Strings.’ Try as she might, B didn’t want to know where to position his fingers , or the difference between black keys and white keys.
I felt a little guilty for forgetting to mention a few important details about my son. Over the phone, I’d talked about his condition, his needs and his abilities. We’d discussed what we’d like to get out of the sessions and what the difficulties might be. I thought I’d prepared her. What I’d forgotten we’re things like, ‘don’t sing to him’. B hates anyone singing and will scream at them to stop. This is manageable enough when you’re sat in the car, less so when you’re trying to give a child a lesson in music. I’d also forgotten how physical he can be and how unaware of personal boundaries he is. Consequently, he shouted, “Be quiet” as he pushed the music teacher’s hand away from the keyboard and, at one point, into her face.
The wonderful thing about B is that, even when being a horror, he seems to exert a charm over people which makes them forgive him. Still, I genuinely felt that I should pay up more than the eleven pounds she charged for her half hour session. It probably felt like more than half an hour to her.
Karen was very patient, although some of her questions were very telling: “Do you find you need endless patience with him?” (yes) and, ”Does he have loads of support at school?” (every second of the day). Rather embarrassingly, she had to ask him to say “please” several times during the lesson (which he did). I forget how often the social niceties get dropped in our house. Quite frankly, we’re glad if he co-operates without a fuss and does what he’s told. We can live without ‘please’, although we should try harder with him. Good manners cost nothing, as they say. Unless the cost is a screaming meltdown caused by being forced to do something against your will.
So, was it an unmitigated disaster? Well, no, actually, it was not. We got the first three notes of ‘Three Blind Mice’ out of him, and he gave the drum machine a full three minutes of his attention. And of course he had a whale of a time. He’s talked about it since and is looking forward to going back. I think it’s important to keep these things in perspective: it was his first lesson, everything was new, he was excited and Karen had just had a crash course in Autism for Beginners.
Despite the problems, I think Karen saw something in him. His innate sense of rhythm was obvious, as was his fiercely inquisitive, intelligent mind. As he bashed away at the keys (a little too hard for my liking) she asked, “Does this song have words?”. “No”, he replied, “it’s an instrumental”. I got the impression she really wants to be able to get through to him, and not just because I’m paying her. She was actually very good with him, and he liked her. As I was leaving, she said, “I will make it work.” It’s a grand claim, but I love that she said it, whatever the outcome.
Whatever the future holds for my son, I hope his music will continue to be a part of it, and bring him joy. And if these music sessions stop bringing that joy, then we’ll simply stop them. But perhaps they will become a bridge into his world. Perhaps one day his music will be something he wants others to be a part of and enjoy as a shared experience. That’s a bridge worth building.
“Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once.”