A connection made (a reflection by Priska Setiadi)

It all started from a referral process. My client was referred to me because he showed some symptoms of mild autism. His teacher described how he behaved in class and how he socialized with his friends. She said that he had speech-delay, he was nonverbal, and one time he bit his friend in class. Despite of all that, she told me that he responded really well to music. With these information I began to search for relevant resources preparing for the assessment.

In the assessment I found that “The Wheels on the Bus” was my client’s favourite song. I could see this within 10 minutes when I first met him. When my client came in, directly he rushed to the musical instruments I placed in the middle of the room. He plucked and hit them randomly. After that, he ran around the room playing with stuff he found interesting. Seeing this I tried to catch his attention. I played my guitar, hit the tambourine, shook the maracas, but he didn’t respond. Suddenly his teacher (who was also in the room) said, “Hey, let’s sing the wheels on the bus!” So I sang it. Instantly he turned his head toward me, smiled, and danced to my music.

Through the first assessment I could see how music was able to connect us but then I began to wonder, how am I going to use the music? As I was looking for inspiration, I remembered what I’ve learned in Wigram’s book, Improvisation. I found Wigram’s improvisation method interesting and of great potential. In the preceding sessions I began to put into practice the techniques of improvisation, including: imitating, matching, dialoguing, and grounding.

During one session, I suddenly saw a spark in his eyes, something that I have never seen before. A spark that gave me the feeling as if we were finally connected and understood each other. It happened while I was imitating his voice, and he was suddenly aware of what I was doing. He then increased his volume as he was saying, “AAAA…!” and I increased the tension of my guitar strumming. Then, he said, “Stop!” and I stopped playing. Seeing this he laughed while looking at me. It was at that moment when I saw in his eyes the feeling of being understood.

From that moment, I began to see significant improvements in my client. He hugged me at the end of each session, he responded when I called his name, and he did what I instructed him to do in a musical game. His teacher also mentioned that she could see his improvement outside of the therapy session.

The feeling of being understood is probably the best feeling anyone can feel. We often got it wrong in terms of meeting children with autism. We want them to understand us. We want them to talk the way we talk, to learn the way we learn, to express emotion the way we express. Before we expect them to do so, maybe we are the ones who should try to understand them first and we can achieve that with music.

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