Tag Archives: Autism


My first time watching a movie at Golden Mile. It was a bit of a walk from Lavender, and we emerged from the theatre on a cold, wet and unfamiliar Sunday afternoon, my stomach empty and grumbling, but it felt worth it. Especially since all profits  were going to the Autism Association!

The film portrays the lives of a couple with an autistic son, Danial.  Some parts felt like an educational documentary, but I could see why it would be important to use such a powerful platform to reach out to the masses. And all things considered, I thought it was a very realistic portrayal of the struggles a family unit goes through when they live with a person with special needs, and how acceptance and support from different blocks of society can really make a difference in meaning and quality of life.

Just before the film started, the audience was asked to observe a few moments of silence for the female lead, as her own child had just passed away that morning.

It made me think: Aren’t the hearts of parents universally the same? They just want their children to grow up happy.

I Dreamed I Was Normal

Almost a decade ago, Ginger Clarkson, teacher and music therapist at a special school in the USA, decided to adopt the Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) approach to interact with her students with autism. The results were unbelievable. The conversations she had with these non-verbal individuals, prone to seemingly unreasonable meltdowns and tantrums and tempers, turned out to be full of depth, ranging from emotions, to spirituality, to discussions about following one’s dreams and intuitions, and much more. All of which would not have been unlocked had the students not been given the chance to express themselves through facilitated communication and GIM.

Reading her accounts with Jerry, Twyla and Scott has made me see people with autism in a newfound light of respect. They are not as “shut off” as we presume them to be. Their world is accessible – we just need to make the effort to access it. And what they have to teach us definitely makes the effort worth it.

Session’s End

I’m happy to note that connecting with M on the piano in this recent week felt a lot easier and smoother. I feel like I’m beginning to understand his musical personality, recognizing certain quirks and patterns which emerge in the way he plays. For example, he likes heavy chords, and seems to like it when the therapist validates his heavy treble playing with equally heavy bass chords, gradually transiting to an anchoring bass pattern which he can continue to play above and build on. Also, if he feels that he has run out of things to play, he might start pressing all the keys one by one, until he has covered the whole range of the piano, until he has touched every single key. “It’s one of his autistic traits”, R told us, referring to M’s need to make sure that every single note on the piano is accounted for.

This need to make sure everything is in order is also reflected in his actions. When he walks into the room, the first thing M usually does is to switch off all the electrical switches he can see, and makes sure all the windows are closed. After the session, he also automatically makes sure that all instruments and chairs are put back in place. No one’s complaining about that, of course 🙂

At the end of our most recent session, M did something which made us really tickled, yet at the same time highlighting just how observant he is of his surroundings and how much he understands of it, even if he doesn’t know how to articulate it.

“Well done today, M”, R congratulated him as we all stood up after the Goodbye Song. Apart from piano improvisation, we had also spent the session getting M to emulate the action words of a song, and play bells and drums alternately, all of which he did beautifully. “Well done”, R repeated.

M understood from R’s words that the session was officially over. He jumped up from his chair like he had just been given permission to move, ran across to an obscure corner of the room, where a stack of chairs stood, slightly slanted away from the wall. In 2 seconds, M was beside the chairs and had made sure that they were shifted that 2 centimeters so that they stood parallel to the wall. We, still standing beside the piano, realized that he must have noticed that stack of displaced chairs earlier and was just waiting for the session to end so that he could run to them and put them right. If this teenager could speak, we surely would have heard him yell: “FINALLY! That stack of chairs had been bothering me since I noticed them! I can’t believe no one else noticed they were not parallel to the wall!!!”

With the chairs in place, everything was right in M’s world again, and he happily bounced out of the room.

And because M had the last slot for the day, this is what I remember most from this week’s sessions: The gratification of musical communication. Our tickled laughter.  The feeling of pure joy and affection for this special kid.

The Goodbye Song

We have a new addition to our Thursday line-up: “Ax”, a 12-year old boy with severe autism.

As we settled into the observation room to watch R and Yani (Yes, Ax is so challenging to work with that he needs two therapists!), Ax’s mother came in and sat next to us.

Throughout most of the session, while R and Yani were doing their stuff, converting Ax’s mono-syllable vocalizations into song, using the momentum from his ever-moving hands to beat in pulse, all the while trying to get him to articulate vowel sounds which might eventually lead to speech, Ax’s mother made small talk with us. She seemed light-hearted and was even able to laugh when her son had bouts of non-cooperation, only to bounce up, full of energy a second later.

When it was time for the Goodbye Song, Yani decided trying to get Ax to say “bye”, or at least something similar to it.

“Goodbye…” she sang, pointing to herself.

“Goodbye…” R joined in as Yani gestured to him.

“Good…” Both of them looked expectantly at Ax, waiting for him to finish the word.

The first time went unresponded, but the second time, Ax made a clear “AYE” sound, so distinctly different from his default “Mmmm” that Yani and R burst into an enthusiastic “YES!”

Determined to elicit another greeting from him, the Goodbye Song was repeated. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth time. But Ax seemed either unable or unwilling to produce the word again.

In the observation room, we watch in silence as the last line refrains again and again, with Yani’s beautiful soaring voice, R’s gentle piano accompaniment, and that expectant silence at the end of every phrase, each time heavier than the last.

Ax’s mother has also fallen silent, and from the corner of my eyes, I can see her watching the scene unfolding before her like a hawk. In her stillness and silence, I sense her hopes and expectations, as heavy as the space at the end of those phrases Ax did not fill.

A simple wish from a mother – to hear her child speak. To be able to communicate with him. To know what he is thinking. To know that her child will be able to take care of himself and survive in the world when she is no longer around. Silently, she watched.

When Yani finally had to give up due to time constraints, Ax’s mother stood up to go too. Before she left, she said to us in an almost-apologetic tone: “You see the challenge of working with him.”

After she left, I sat there for a few seconds more, just recovering from one of the most beautiful and intense Goodbyes I’ve ever seen or heard.

So far.

The First Meeting

In Creative Music Therapy, the act of the therapist and client initially getting to know each other is known as a Meeting. This Meeting is not about physically saying Hello or HowDoYouDo – more often than not it may not even be verbal – it’s more about coming to a mutual understanding, acceptance and acknowledgment of each other’s presence and abilities. For the therapist, this means getting a sense of the client’s ability to communicate and their dominant emotions. For the client, it may mean feeling validated by how the therapist responds to them, getting used to the setting, feeling safe enough to express freely.

After weeks of observation, our supervisor (henceforth known as R) dropped a fine bomb on us on the recent Thursday, suggesting that we physically step into the session with M, a sweet 16-year old boy with autism. He doesn’t speak, with the exception of single words, usually popping up at the end of song phrases and sentences. He loves songs that have actions to go along with them, and recently started saying words AND doing the actions at the same time. He is also very routinized, and we were initially worried that the presence of strangers in the room might throw him off. Fortunately, M seemed relatively comfortable, and even shook our hands when told to. Five minutes into the session, R suggests that I start by Meeting M at the piano.

So I sit on the piano bench, hesitant but excited, and wait for M to make the first move. “Just use what he offers you musically and try to respond accordingly”, R tells me. In other words, clinical improvisation. Improvising, but in a clinical context, to Meet M and show him that his sounds are being validated and that he is being accepted as a person. From the observation room, watching R do it, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Just respond to what the client offers you. Take what he plays and return it. Call and respond. Basic musical concepts. Right? Except that from the moment my fingers hit the keys, my brain started screaming: “This doesn’t sound right! How do you know if you’re playing correctly?! What’s the correct way to do this?!” The extreme need to know whether I was right or wrong meant that my intellectual brain was working in overdrive, and that, was certainly no way for spontaneous improvisation to take place.

There is a phrase: “Creative Moments” – used to describe that moment when a true and pure connection has been made . When it happens, the therapist knows it, the client knows it (presumably). I felt such a moment for about 3 seconds, when I chose to play sustained, open chords in the base, to support M creating a rhythmically denser melody on the higher register. The intervals of 4th and 5th suggest openness and provides room for expression, inviting the music the develop and grow. We worked this way for the duration of about 5-6 chords, before my intellect kicked in and I thought: “Hey, this may be getting boring for him. What if I try to spice things up by adding some accidentals?” The moment my fingers hit those black keys, I cringed inwardly, for it was then I realised that M was only playing with the white keys, and there had been no need to add any accidentals at all! By trying to “spice things up”, instead of continuing to trust my feelings and obvious observation, I had ruined the Creative Moment for us. I tried to go back to whole-tone chords, but the moment felt lost, and M had proceeded to another mode/musical motive which I then had to catch up with.

That was just one example out of numerous in the session in which my intellect came in and got in the way. R was very encouraging after the session, saying that we did not too badly for the first time, pointing out the fact that clinical improvisation is something that can be learnt, and he would be more than happy to share some tips with us for the future. He just needed to throw us into the deep end for awhile to see how much we could do. And while I’m no olympic swimmer, I’m also happy I didn’t drown, and somehow managed to stay afloat long enough to experience the beauty of the ocean.

As one of our lecturers told us recently, it is possible to have a Meeting extend over a few sessions – she shared how she was still Meeting a client even after 3-4 sessions, and only felt that she had finally Met him in the 4th session, after which more focus could be given to the planned clinical goals. She added that we should not constrict our relationship with clients within sessions (not unlike how a teacher may think of a child’s development in terms of school terms and semesters), something bureaucracy tends to do to us. After all, a person’s development is never compartmentalized.

I’ve been thinking about M and this experience with him over the past few days. I don’t think I’ve ever reflected this deeply as a teacher.

I really want to do this.


Carly’s Voice


“I think the only thing I can say is don’t give up. Your inner voice will find its way out. Mine did.”


Carly’s Voice is the story of an amazing girl, born with autism and other conditions which prevent her from speaking. Against all odds, she made herself heard above all her challenges and disabilities.

Someone once told me that the human will has the strength of an elephant.

People like Carly help us believe that, just a little more.