Sunday, February 14, 2016

Make a Joyful Noise

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, Alex usually speaks quietly, often making understanding what he has to say difficult. In fact, one of the areas his therapists and we have worked with him to improve is making his volume audible so that he can be heard. As they have pointed out to us, in order to advocate for himself, Alex will have to speak up and make sure he is heard. Even though we are willing to ask him to repeat what he has said until we understand what he wants to tell us, other people may not be as patient with him. For this reason, we have worked with him on his volume and had him practice asking and answering questions he would need in social situations, such as ordering his food in a restaurant, something he does regularly on our Fun Friday recreational therapy outings.

I don’t know whether he speaks quietly because his hearing is so acute that his voice sounds louder to him than it does to other people, or perhaps he feels unsure about speaking aloud because he knows speech is one of his weaknesses. Of course, like any skill, he has needed to practice to improve, and we have been pleased with the progress we have seen. Recently, his music therapist commented that Alex rarely has to repeat something he has said because he is speaking with an appropriate volume most of the time now.

A couple of weeks ago, Alex came downstairs and enthusiastically told us how low gas prices were and specifically named the price at a local gas station. One of his interests is following oil prices every day and observing how they affect gasoline prices. He went on to tell us that this was the lowest price in many years and cited the specific year in the past when gasoline prices were that cheap. Because Alex was so excited about these low gas prices, Ed suggested that we go fill my car’s gas tank at the station Alex had found online, even though it was 9:30 at night. Alex was even more excited that we were actually going to the gas station, and he was delighted to be going along for what he perceived to be a grand adventure. Essentially, he was being rewarded for speaking up and sharing his knowledge with us.

Yesterday afternoon, I could hear men’s voices talking upstairs, and I realized that Alex and Ed were having a conversation. Even through the closed door of Alex’s room, I could hear their discussion about the upcoming Valparaiso University men’s basketball game that evening. In the past, I would have been able to hear Ed’s voice but not Alex’s, and it was nice to be able to hear him matching Ed’s normal conversational volume. As I briefly eavesdropped, I was happy to hear them talk about a shared interest, something we once wondered if Alex would ever be able to do.

In addition to speaking up more, Alex has also been singing in a louder voice lately. One of the many benefits of music therapy is that Alex has learned to sing along to songs he enjoys. When he first started music therapy, he would just listen to the songs or maybe play a percussion instrument or accompany on keyboard, playing all the wrong notes. With time, he gradually began singing along, but he would barely sing, so that he appeared to be lip syncing. Now, as we watch American Idol together every week or listen to music on the cable Music Choice channels or listen to the radio in the car, I often hear Alex’s voice, sweet but off key, like mine, singing along to the lyrics.  As I listen to him sing, I wonder if singing has helped his speech because he can recite words that are familiar while gaining practice with his articulation and volume. Nonetheless, we just like listening to him sing because it clearly brings him joy.

Last night at the university basketball game, Alex thoroughly enjoyed himself, even though our team lost. After going to several games this season, he knows the routines of when to stand, when to sit, when to clap, and when to cheer. When the first notes of the VU fight song play, he immediately stands with the rest of the crowd. When the cheerleaders run to the floor with signs, he eagerly anticipates the chant of “HEY, VU!” followed by, “V-A-L-P-A-R-A-I-S-O, LET’S GO, VALPO, LET'S GO!” In addition, he recognizes familiar songs the pep band plays, and he smiles and gently rocks when they play his favorite tunes.

One of his favorite songs they play is “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, one of his favorite groups, whom he used to call “Bon Jo-bee” when he was younger. I found it interesting that the student section was singing the chorus to this song loudly, even though none of them were even born when this song was popular in the 1980’s. Sometimes Alex sings along with them; mostly he smiles as he listens. To encourage him to sing along, I sing the words in his ear, and I realize that these words have meaning for us, a promise we will get past the obstacles autism has presented our family:

“Whoa, we’re halfway there; whoa, livin’ on a prayer.
Take my hand; we’ll make it, I swear. Whoa, livin’ on a prayer.”

When Alex was younger, we prayed for the time when we would be able to have conversations with him, and we worked hard to get him to speak more, wanting to know what he would have to say. While he still struggles with speech, he can now give us some insights into his thoughts, sharing his enthusiasm about gasoline prices, basketball, or a familiar tune. I’m certain that with more time and more practice, he will have more to say. Indeed, we are “halfway there,” and for that, we are truly grateful. Alex, “take my hand; we’ll make it, I swear. Whoa, livin’ on a prayer.”

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth; make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” Psalm 98:4

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