Sunday, March 9, 2014

Reaching Through Autism with Music

Today’s New York Times Magazine offers a compelling article written by the father of an adult son with autism entitled “Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney.” [To read this article, please click here.] In this essay, author Ron Suskind describes how his family has dealt with autism over the years and how Disney characters and movies have helped his son with autism learn to communicate with others. Describing his son’s fascination with the Disney animated movies, the author explains that when his son was younger, he began quoting lines from the movies he’d watched over and over. While the experts described this behavior from his essentially nonverbal son as echolalia, or simply repeating what has been heard without any intended meaning, Suskind and his wife realized that these repeated lines had context and meaning to their son. By using lines from the movies their son had watched with such interest and joy, they were able to communicate with their son and begin to understand what he was thinking and feeling. As Suskind notes, “There’s a reason—a good-enough reason—that each autistic person has embraced a particular interest. Find that reason, and you will find them, hiding in there, and maybe get a glimpse of their underlying capacities.”

In reading this essay, I was taken back to when Alex was younger and loved watching Disney videos, too—like Suskind’s son, who is about Alex’s age, rewinding the videotapes to watch beloved scenes over and over again. Both of our sons, like many children in the 1990’s, grew up on Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the classic Pinocchio, but our boys watched these movies with an intense fascination that other typical children did not. While Suskind’s son focused upon the dialogue that he repeated, for Alex the “good-enough reason” was the music that brought him joy. Besides the classic Disney movies, Alex was also a fan of the Disney Sing Along videos, where he could not only watch his favorite animated characters but also watch as the lyrics to the familiar tunes from the movies bounced across our television screen. For Alex, the written words had more power than the spoken words, and the beautiful melodies offered an added bonus to him.

Over the years, music continues to delight Alex, who has rather eclectic tastes in music, probably because his father and I have such different tastes in music. From Ed, Alex has learned to appreciate music without words, as they have listened to classical music and jazz together. Frankly, when they listen to Bob Dylan, the effect is essentially the same because no one can really understand the words he sings anyway. From me, Alex has learned the music of my generation, 1970’s and 80’s pop music, as we listened to everything from the faux singing family the Partridge Family to the real brothers Gibb, the Bee Gees. In addition, he learned the traditional childhood songs, such as “This Old Man,” which he has asked my mom to sing for him countless times over the years. As he has grown older, he has chosen as his favorite the genre Ed and I both like—country music, with its gentle melodies and storytelling lyrics.

Every Thursday afternoon, Alex looks forward to his music therapy sessions with his music therapist Noel, a young man who appreciates Alex’s enthusiasm for music. During these sessions in our home, I listen from the next room, enjoying the songs they sing and play together and the rapport they have established. Every week, Alex chooses to listen to the pre-programmed song on our electronic keyboard “Auld Lang Syne,” in homage to his love of New Year’s Eve and the tradition of the New York Times Square ball drop countdown celebrating the start of a new year. Most of the sessions, however, focus upon country music, and I enjoy listening to Noel play the guitar while the two of them sing. Actually, Alex has to be coaxed to sing loudly enough to be heard, but I can picture him in my mind swaying to the rhythm and smiling as he sings, because I know how he loves those songs. I also know that as they sing Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” Alex is finding the lyrics funny and probably wishing that they could sing the extra verse Garth only does in the live version where he tells off the “little lady” in no uncertain terms. As they sing Johnny Cash’s classic “Folsom Prison Blues,” I wonder what Alex is thinking about the harsh lyrics: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” but suspect he is more engaged with how Noel’s voice goes into the lower range as he sings those words. My favorite song they sing together is another Johnny Cash song, “I Walk the Line,” probably because I think of how those lyrics describe my feelings for Alex: “As sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you in my mind both day and night, and happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right. Because you’re mine, I walk the line.”

This week, Alex was especially excited about my mom’s birthday on Thursday and kept telling me that he wanted "to go to Nanny’s house." Because she had a cold, we weren’t able to go on Thursday. When I finally asked him why he wanted to go so badly, I discovered that he wanted to sing to her and have cake. I told him that we could go this weekend, but he could still sing to her over the phone. Happily and off tune, Alex launched into his rendition of “Happy Birthday” over the phone, much to the delight of my mom. Yesterday, he was able to get his wish, singing to her in person over a birthday cake, leaving out one of the lines, perhaps to get to the cake a little sooner. For Alex, the tradition of singing and cake makes birthdays special and creates joy that he can share with others.

Similarly, I was able to share a new song with Alex this week that we both enjoyed, a song my seventh grade students had told me about from the new Disney animated movie Frozen. After we had watched the excerpt from the movie in a You Tube video one day last week at the end of class, I found myself humming the song all day. Alex asked me what song I was humming, and because I sing off key, I pulled up the video for him so that he could enjoy the song the way I had. [To watch the video, please click here.] As we watched the animated version of “Let It Go” with sing-along lyrics, I was taken back to when Alex was little and we watched the Disney Sing Along videos. He smiled and swayed to the beautiful melody as I focused more closely on the lyrics, the words I found touching and true, “It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small, and the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.” Of course, we had to watch the video again, and Alex enjoyed it even more the second time because it was now familiar, a tune he would recognize if he heard it again, which would make him smile. Just as Ron Suskind’s son found Disney movies enabled him to connect to the world and bring him contentment, Alex finds joy in music that allows him to celebrate special days and to find simple pleasure in every day. In the words of Bob Dylan (that I understand only because I’ve heard Rod Stewart sing them): “
May your heart always be joyful and may your song always be sung. May you stay forever young.”

“He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what He has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord.” Psalm 40:3

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