A Quiet Lack of Meaning
There is a kind of aching mystery about a child who has not found her voice by two, by four, by six. These are the children who may be so silent that even a whispered utterance is welcomed. Their inner lives seem inaccessible to us as we wonder about their feelings and what is on their minds, for sound exists for most of us not only as an event(s) but also as a common and natural medium for our narratives (Altman, 1992).
My experience has been with such children on the autism spectrum. It can happen, as in the case of three-year old Hana, that her own silence eventually engendered hushed tones from her mother, who was subconsciously matching; their rapport had become akin to a mute couple who have not found alternate ways to communicate. In addition to the prevalence of quiet, mother was following early intervention directives and spoke to her daughter in English.
An immigrant, English was not her native language. A complication of that difficult fluency was that meaningful prosodic variations normally found in speech that are expressed through intonation, timing, timbre, etc. — and that are critical to communicative intent in the here-and-now — were missing.
Multiple Sounds and Signals of Significance
Having brought music, especially singing, into the relational mix we had been able to cajole some new sounds, but I wondered aloud with her mother about what else Hana had been taking in aurally – her early soundscape – and how we might use and cultivate it reciprocally.
I learned that Mother, Father and extended family engaged with each other in their native Korean, complete with robust prosody, of course. Although for little Hana it had not been a framework for her interactions with others, it was clearly a familiar and soothing background sound; as importantly, for mother these were still the sounds that were the most full of life.
As we looked for opportunities to use them meaningfully, Mother returned to the earliest playful bedtime rhymes and songs in Korean which her own mother had used with her, part of a universal maternal phenomenon in which prosody is unique in its affective style and value.
Connecting it to finger/hand plays and simple, individually-tailored sensory activities in washing, swaying and tucking garnered her daughter’s engagement. In this context, her mother’s facial affect and delightful sounds elicited Hana’s first vocal imitations and then spontaneous vocal expressions, which placed them on an essential developmental trajectory that had been delayed.
A Musical Bridge for Two
Later, we were able to transfer these experiences to playful interactions using English as well. It should be emphasized, that in order to do so and to reach jointly significant experiences in sound it was critical for not only the child’s experience to be bridged to genuine meaning, but that mother’s had to be drawn from her own personally evocative sound space as well.
Aspects of the home soundscape, originally a dissociated background for the child, thus grew into a valuable transitional experience of shared embodied meaning wherein as Altman (1992) describes, live sound reveals the actual relationship between the sound producer and perceiver.
Early acoustics create eco-systems with a profusion of incidental and deliberate, wanted and unwanted, natural and human-made sonorities (Schafer, 1994.) Here, my initial curiosity about a voiceless child concerned one of the most basic elements (speech/language), was shaped by cultural/linguistic factors and informed by developmental processes (Greenspan, 2008).
Looking at clues from both the child and the family in this way can help not only the initial focus, but also frames the complexity of early soundscapes, with its immense dynamic potential in cases of communicative disorders and intervention.