|Posted by Gabrielle "Gaby" Berbey on July 24, 2013 at 2:15 AM|
The dictionary defines autism as a developmental disorder that is diagnosed by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, and to communicate with others. If you had shown me this definition two weeks ago, I would have undoubtedly agreed with this description. My mind would have likely conjured up an image of an introverted child rendered dysfunctional in society due to their disorder, a child defined solely by the limitations of their disorder.
As I reflect on this definition now, I find myself unsettled by its language, or rather, unsettled by the word ‘impairment’ in the context of this definition. This impairment, synonymous with ‘damage’, implies that these children will never be able to experience the beauty of human connection, leaving them forever isolated in an intangible and unconquerable sphere of autism’s symptoms. According to this definition, their disorder has stripped them of their ability to connect with others, consequently defining them. But what if, for a moment, we reflected on the individual and not the definition, making an attempt to understand and see the world through their eyes? Once we grasp that the individual can define the disorder, and not vice versa, and that we all possess innately distinct insecurities of sorts in regards to social interactions, we open our minds to the possibility of transcending the limitations of autism.
The notion of rising above these seemingly concrete limitations did not seem possible until Tyler and I assisted in teaching a music therapy session for autistic teenagers at the Wings Learning Center in Redwood City. Admittedly, before the session, I found the thought of working with autistic teenagers to be daunting, as I experienced the far-too-familiar fear of the unknown. Entering the session, I found myself being uncharacteristically reserved, silently sitting in my chair and observing each child and how they interacted with their surroundings, hesitant to immerse myself into their worlds. But as Beth, the head therapist, began the class with a guitar-accompanied song, my preconceived image of the introverted autistic child vanished. My silence was no longer from reservation but instead, surprise. I observed as each child sang confidently and loudly, fervently hitting their drums to the beat and unafraid to have their voices ring throughout the hallways. The louder they sang, the happier they seemed, as the music from their voices drowned the noise of their disorders. They had found their voices, and more importantly, believed in their voices, something that we, as humans, often struggle with.
After Beth’s song, Tyler improvised on the piano while one of the students fearlessly improvised alongside him, harmonizing with his chords. I noticed a wide smile plastered on her face the entire time, not simply because she was playing the piano, but because she was connecting with others through piano.
I followed Tyler’s performance with several Scottish tunes I picked up from my recent trip to the Scottish Highlands. As I moved from one tune to the next, the kids began dancing freely around the room, jangling their tambourines and tapping their drums to the beat. Never in my entire thirteen years of playing had I ever witnessed an audience so receptive to the simple beauty of music. For them, music was not about the specific notes and techniques, but instead it’s about how they felt listening to the music. They were united through this inherent, but often overlooked ability to simply feel, and to let that feeling become the drive for their collaboration between one another, and they, in unison, transcended the limitations of their disorders and the misunderstanding surrounding their disorders.
Misunderstanding is often present in the fear of attempt, a fear of exploring something that, at first glance, does not seem “normal”. But once we step out of our comfort zone, experiencing the wonderfully unsettling feeling of embracing the unfamiliar, the blindfold of misunderstanding is lifted. I realized that the children in the Wings Music Center are not autistic children, but children who have the strength to define their autism. They are children who have found a means of capturing an unadulterated joy from connecting with one another in ways that I have never witnessed before, and they are among the happiest, kindest, and bravest teenagers I have ever met. I greatly look forward to continue being inspired by the children in the Wings Learning Center Music Therapy in the following weeks.