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How my nonverbal son communicates through music

This guest post is by Mary Harrison, a 13 year-old piano wizard who has autism. She is an advocate for the Simply Music Gateway music therapy program and lives in New Canaan, CT. You can learn more about Simply Music Gateway here.

I had my first son, Jewels, in 2001. I didn’t know he was Autistic until he was diagnosed at age 3. I didn’t know the signs to look for. I just wanted him to be typical, normal. But he wasn’t. He could not speak, could not sit still, and had no ability to use his fingers. I wanted to connect with him, but how could I if he couldn’t even communicate? I tried to play games with Jewels and read stories to him, but he couldn’t be less interested.

What he was interested in, however, was music. I would often wonder why it was that he was able to hum tunes, yet he could not speak. When Jewels was 8, I decided to take a forward thinking approach and start music therapy sessions to help with speech and language development and easing his erratic behaviors. Jewels worked with Karen Nisenson, a brilliant woman in our hometown that runs a creative arts therapy center for children and adults with special needs. Did I mention she trained at Julliard and holds a Masters Degree in Music Therapy from NYU, where she is an adjunct professor? Like I said, brilliant.

Karen began working with Jewels on the piano, focusing on getting his fingers to push the keys, one by one (rather than his typical banging on the keyboard with full hands). He would hear songs and want to be able to play them, but because of his lack of motor skills and strength in his fingers, he simply couldn’t. He became frustrated with the instrument he loved the most. I knew we couldn’t give up. This has to work, I kept thinking. This is the one thing that truly brings him joy.  And so our work with Karen continued.

As his sessions progressed, we began to see his potential unlocked. Jewels was well on his way to playing full songs on the piano. But how will he play songs if he can’t read music? Turns out, an Australian Music Educator named Neil Moore created an adaptive playing based-method that teaches piano using a series of patterns and shapes, rather than sheet music. He taught a blind boy to play piano using this method, surely it would work for my Autistic son! Here is our breakthrough! But is it going to work?

Oh, it worked alright. Jewels began to learn how to play songs in a way that was fun and easy. Where most typical therapies can feel like work, this felt like playtime. He built strength in his fingers, his focus and attention grew, his behavior dramatically improved, and his fine motor skills were becoming more developed. He became confident. We saw his voice emerge, and finally got to experience his loving and engaging personality. You can watch a video of him below... 

Here was my son, who couldn’t even hold a pencil before these lessons, playing classical, blues, and jazz pieces on the piano with ease! I knew Jewels could appreciate music, but never did I think that he would be able to participate in it. Because I honored his love of music, he now honors me with his gift. What our kids like to do matters. We need to focus on their abilities, not their disabilities.

The piano gives Jewels a voice. It is our own special way of communicating, much like members of a band will play off of each other in a way that it seems like they are having a conversation using their instruments. I can finally connect with my son. It may not be in a “typical” kind of way, but it is our way.

These days Jewels is using his gift to give back to the community. He has performed in group-homes for adults with special needs, and regularly puts on recitals to raise money for charity, the latest being in the middle of Times Square in NYC. Yes, you read that right, my severely Autistic son was able to sit still and play three songs on the piano in the middle on Times Square!

None of this would’ve been possible if not for the life-changing work of Karen and Neil. They gave my son a gift, and he passed that gift along to me.

To learn more about Simple Music Gateway and Mary and Jewels story you can learn more here

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.