I am witness to miracles everyday. Some are as simple as a spoken word, others as profound as a glimpse through the eyes into the soul of a child. I live in the world of music and autism. Twenty years ago as a budding music therapist, I had my first encounter with “the crazy kids,” as my supervisor called them. Despite Robert’s bite to my neck that first day, I have never looked back. That is because I believe, as the chief neurologist of the autism team on which I serve once said, “It all comes down to music therapy, doesn’t it?”
Autism is a neurological disorder that pervasively impacts an individual’s life. Perhaps most devastating is the inability or even the lack of desire to communicate with others. April was a four-year-old who wandered the classroom, hands in her mouth, eyes continually scanning the ceiling. The first time we met she was on the floor screaming. So, I got down on the floor and screamed with her. One minute into this bizarre session, she stopped. So did I. She started screaming again. So did I. And then, she looked at me and smiled! I sang her name as in a lullaby, and two minutes later, we stood up and went off to make music.
Sam was a three-year-old who would hum every song he had ever heard even once. One day his mother called me to say that after I left, Sam had taken the magnetic letters off the refrigerator and spelled B-I-N-G-O, which was the song I had played for him. To her, it was the first sign that Sam wanted to communicate. I quickly discovered that Sam had absolute pitch. This meant that even in the absence of a musical sound, he could tell me the name of a particular note as easily as you or I can name colors. Sam is 22, an accomplished violist and a University of Michigan graduate.
Jimmy had never spoken a word in his 12 years of life. Then, one day during music group, he sang the whole verse to Zippety Doo Da! David’s first word was “guitar.” Zev’s first phrase was “more music.” James once told me, “I’m going to be a music therapist when I grow up!”
Today, much more is known about how music and autism are processed by the brain. It only validates what I have always known; something magical happens when music and autism meet. But it is more than just the music. It is the crucial combination of the relationship between the music, the child and the therapist. Without that trinity, miracles don’t happen. With it, lives can change.
Remember Robert, who bit me on the neck? He wrote me a song the day I left his school:
I love me and you too
Tomorrow will be our big romance night
I wish I could sing it for you, but it could never be the same
as when he sang it for me.
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