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Pauline Lerner

My first lesson with an autistic student

November 9, 2007 at 5:02 AM

I got an unexpected email in response to one of my Internet violin teacher ads a few months ago. It was from someone asking whether I’d be interested in taking a young autistic man as a student. My first reaction was panic. “Oh, no! I don’t want to be alone in my home with someone who is mentally ill.” I recovered quickly and started reading about autism. I learned that autism is a mental disorder characterized by difficulties with social interactions, including verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests, often music or math. Then I spoke to a friend (Kelsey Zachary of v.com) who teaches violin and has an autistic student. She told me that she loves her autistic student. He is a sweet person with tremendous excitement and enthusiasm about playing violin. I called the person who had sent me the email, a professional social worker and amateur violinist, and she gave me some background. The mother of the autistic student (“D”) had taught D to play violin, but she is now critically ill and can not teach him. He has been placed in a sheltered home, where he is doing well. He is a reasonably accomplished amateur violinist. He sits in for an hour (the limit of his attention span) with a community orchestra at their weekly rehearsals and plays with them. He can not practice by himself because of his limited attention span. He can not practice by himself because of his limited attention span. My function would be to help him with the music and provide him with the necessary structure to practice, including bringing him back to task when his mind goes somewhere else. She also assured me that he is a sweet fellow and that I would like him. We arranged a time to meet, and one of the counselors from his home would come, too. D might have more than the usual amount of difficulty interacting with me because he doesn’t know me, and the counselor would be able to help.

When we met, D appeared quite confused by the new environment. He wandered around, some times picked something up, but was never destructive. His counselor kept calling him back. I took out his violin and looked it over. It was old but obviously well cared for. The only problem was the pegs. They were so badly stuck that none of us could move them, so D had to play on his violin out of tune.

When I needed to communicate with him verbally, his counselor served as an intermediary. I first had D play some of his orchestra music, and he played it very well. I thought he might enjoy playing something different, something with a melody, so I took out one of my Suzuki books. I asked him, “Have you played the Suzuki books?” and of course, he did not answer. I showed him the cover of the book and asked the same question, but still got no response. However, when he started playing, it was obvious that he knew this material very well, and, also, that he was enjoying himself. When our time was up, his counselor asked him whether he would like to continue violin lessons with me, and he nodded “yes” and jumped up and down in his chair with excitement. Then he went towards his violin case to put his violin away, but he stopped and played Twinkle. I believe that this was his way of answering my question about playing Suzuki books. I loved it.

We started some a serious conversation about getting funding for D’s violin lesson. The discussion continued on the phone and by email for several weeks. The social worker told me that the public funds for such purposes had already been allotted. The appropriate agency was only considering emergency cases. She said that it would be much easier if I had a degree as a music therapist, but I don’t. She continued working on the problem.

Obviously, learning to play the violin requires the acquisition of many new motor skills and the use of them all simultaneously. Someone with a very short attention span must have been a very difficult beginning student. I thought about the love and patience his mother must have used to teach him, and I felt awe and gratitude.

Musical talent is a gift and a responsibility. The responsibility is to learn to use it to bring satisfaction to yourself and, hopefully, to others. Music-making must be especially important to autistic people since they are deprived of the many possible good feelings that come from communicating with other people. I decided that I really wanted to teach D and that I’d take him as a scholarship student if necessary.

Next I had to wait several weeks to find out whether he would get funded so that we could start regular weekly lessons.

To be continued

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