I spend a lot of time thinking about relationships in autism. This is especially true in a toy aisle when I become queasy over all the so-called “interactive” toys that are battery-powered, embedded with flashing lights, 15-seconds of whiny music and spinning parts. An immediate wish, command and gratification are all so easily enticed by a magic button. So, push it, push it, push it again!
What would these objects look and feel like if I had an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and what effect would they have on me and those in my closest circles – my parents, siblings, therapists?
These are not idle wonderings. In my practice as a Developmental Music Educator who interacts using live music-making with children who have ASD, I am stymied by these addictive crazy whiz boxes more often than I care to remember.
To me, the best musical toy may be a drum — no batteries, no electronic sounds, no automated drumsticks. It would defeat the power of the drum to install a button for it! No, we use our hands; feel the taut drumhead push back our palms and fingertips; the vibrations tingle up our fingertips, up our arms; the vibrations are organic, they touch the energy and life in our bodies. And the interactive component the child gets is me, not a button.
Joy Through Music
Take Michael, a 5-year old boy with autism who I recently met. Michael was brought to me by his anxious, loving parents whose introductory description of him was weary and rote. “He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t like to look at anyone. He likes to be left alone with puzzles. Sometimes, he makes odd sounds and it’s getting harder to connect with him. Oh, he loves music.”
Great! I hope he doesn’t have a bunch of whiz boxes, I think. When I ask them to elaborate on the music, they perk up. They tell me it’s the only way to get him to do anything – go upstairs, brush his teeth, get in the car.
I ask how they can tell he loves music, and they say that he smiles, he moves to the music, he hums along, he even drags them to the cd player.
These are impressive, hopeful signs to me that Michael could find joy through music within relationships with other people.
I learned my trade as a practitioner of autism-related work from the late Stanley I. Greenspan, MD (1941-2010) and his colleague, Serena Wieder, Ph.D, both pioneers who founded the developmentally-based approach known as DIR® (Developmental, Individual, Relational), with its catchy practical core known as “Floortime™.”
Thanks in part to Greenspan’s long tenure at National Institute of Infant Mental Health (NIMH), his early research into neurological data associated with special needs provided his and Wieder’s seminal formulations and applications with a sturdy scientific foundation.
`On the Floor’
By late 1990’s and the new century, parents, clinicians and educators around the world were “on the floor” with children, especially those with social and communicative challenges, engaging, relating and securing developmental milestones based on individual differences while using this unique cross-disciplinary frame.
My own mindful embedding of music into Floortime™ happened around the same time as the hard sciences also reached exciting, positive conclusions about the social benefits of early music, including strong ways it plays out for those with certain neurodevelopmental challenges and strengths.
I consider the body and mind of a young person whose senses over-, under-, or differently react to the environment; who hears words but may not understand them; who emits sounds that others may not interpret as communicative.
No wonder children with ASD often seek the safety of ordered repetition.
Yet repetition without variation means no adaptability – a necessary life skill. But, music! Music, by its very nature, is ordered — its patterns are mathematical, in fact. And yet it is also one of the most malleable of mediums, so that stability and change can go hand in hand. Predictability, anticipation, and surprise are orchestrated even while staying grounded.
When Michael pounds on the wide drum between us, I join his tempo and we go at it together. Getting in sync this way feels wonderful – scientists name the phenomenon entrainment. When he stops, I stop too, with an exaggerated freeze to make the point; when he starts up, I do too. After a few times of game-like cause and effect he realizes he has the power. He smiles and looks at me. He’s got that “gleam in the eye,” as Dr. Greenspan named this special relational moment.
I add another layer, singing a simple children’s song on top of our drum beats — and we are now a genuine duo making music. And we haven’t even gotten to louder and softer or faster or slower or a myriad other things we can try as we each lead and follow. Mom and Dad take turns with Michael, too, and it becomes a family activity of musical companionship.
Music is the perfect first language between us. And so much better than those flashy, whiny, whiz boxes with buttons that soon leave a child alone and with nowhere to grow.
Boy with drum photo available from Shutterstock