Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Expanding Through Music

Earlier this year, when the last of Joaquin’s volunteers was about to leave our program, I thought that the Universe was setting up a new phase for us. I planned to sign up Joaquin for a few private lessons this summer on topics that would balance him… Music —I thought— art, physical movement (yoga? karate? tai chi? Little Gym? dance?). I wanted him to be taught by somebody different than me on a topic motivating to him but where we have not gone much. He’s brilliant at math though his passion for it is currently on a break, and I wanted him to experience areas where he has not shown that kind of strength yet.

So thanks to one of Kiki’s former volunteers, I had a great recommendation for a local music teacher. Kiki and I went to meet him on a trial class; Joaquin got a taste of what the experience would be like, and Dan and I got to talk a lot about Joaquin and what we had to offer. This conversation was quite the stimulus for me…

Sharing with him a bit of what I had done with Kiki for the last four years (i.e. following his lead and building on his motivation in order to encourage him to expand and increase his attention span), seemed to give Dan an impression which he called “out of his comfort zone”. He was nice and lovely to Joaquin, yet very straightforward telling me A kid doesn’t run my program; I do. For a minute it looked like this idea wouldn’t go. But we kept talking and — while totally stirred inside— I attempted to listen more than I talked, notice my discomforts, but put them aside for the moment in order to get a better understanding so I could decide if I wanted to give this a try.

I felt like this class, and Dan, were going to be extremely different from what Joaquin and I knew; I wasn’t sure if Joaquin was ready for that. I was afraid that Dan might push a musical agenda perfectly well intended for typical kids which was not my objective with this experience. I also noticed that in addition to fear for how this might fit or clash with our program, I felt discomfort at a personal level which I attempted to analyze as soon as I got home.

The mindfulness and inquiry into these feelings and thoughts went on for about a week or two. I decided to try the class, but I kept vigilance and mental distance from Dan. It was clear to me that his instruction was well received by Joaquin, yet I felt like Dan looked at him (from the little knowledge he got from me) like “a boy who needed to learn to follow instructions”… “a wild child who needed some structure” (not his words). I didn’t like that as the overall agenda for this experience, but I was open to see how a teacher coming from this angle could help Joaquin. However, when Dan talked about how music can open the brain, my ego would cry I already opened his brain!… So he can learn from you and other teachers… Whenever he shared something from his experience helping other children with special needs, my mind would stir in the thought You just don’t know how brilliant this child is!… I realized that I wanted Joaquin to be seen as I know him, and there was big resistance in me to be taught how to reach or teach Joaquin. My left brain wanted Dan to know that I already knew plenty about turning the brain’s learning switch on, that I didn’t need that… That all I wanted was the music without any agenda to treat autism. I had that covered.

All this just inside me. I had made a point to stick to listening and noticing myself and not try to teach Dan anything. I finally had a breakthrough one day when I decided to come out of that proud egotistical wanting–recognition attitude. I decided that it was not important for Dan to know that I knew. It was not necessary or possible for him to know Joaquin like I do. Instead I was going to juice this opportunity for Joaquin and myself and relish in whatever lessons Dan wanted to share with us from his experience. And he does have an experience that is different and complementary to mine. He lost is son to brain cancer many years ago. In fact, that’s the reason why he became a teacher: To teach his son, who asked to learn all his dad knew about music. They accomplished this and more in seven years after the diagnosis, through multiple brain surgeries and loss of tissue. Yes, Dan has his own soaring experience.

So I decided to embrace being a student, even to a teacher I had not requested for myself.

And when I noticed that Kiki was resisting him a bit, even though Dan was proving to be way more flexible than I first thought he would be, I decided to come all the way to support Dan’s efforts even if they came from a different perspective or set of beliefs than mine. I stopped assuming, judging, and resisting. I decided that this was going to be a great learning experience for Joaquin, just like it had been for me. If I become Dan’s student, Joaquin might too. And I had a conversation with Kiki in which I used all my enthusiasm and love to communicate to him how amazingly beneficial it would be for him to take Dan in and let him be the teacher. I told him that it would be great for him to use this opportunity to exercise this “muscle”… To practice being a student, letting someone teach him and direct him, because that is how he will learn (at least in the beginning) everything he ever wants to learn, and that’s how he will be able to participate in more of what the world has to offer. He will need to interact with teachers, coaches, camp counselors, bosses. I need teachers too, and even if I don’t ask for some, they show up sometimes with a gift to offer.

The next lesson Joaquin showed up completely different. He was focused, flexible, open, excellent… And Dan was dazzled. And between that lesson and the ones that have come after, I’ve witnessed this man discover Joaquin and inevitably come to appreciate and love and respect Joaquin like I was hoping he would. I just had to soften inside and cut my mental and emotional distance from him, and now we’re all together. And I see Dan now as my new partner giving Joaquin unique opportunities I can’t provide, like inviting him to play with children for a few minutes on his 8th lesson:

As soon as the lesson was over, Joaquin asked to meet the kids again and listen to another song. Once the mini-recital was over, the most amazing thing happened…

When the music stopped, Kiki cheered out loud This is a great place to explore!. Dan and I laughed, and the oldest of the kids looked at me with a smile, pointed at Joaquin and said He is funny! with such joy, I got goosebumps. I saw Kiki surrounded by these kids as they shook hands, and I felt tears coming down. I felt warm acceptance for my son. I saw him comfortable and excited. I saw him among children, Kiki the littlest, and he looked so cool, so funny, so unique, and amazing, and I thought wow! I feel a taste of where we’re going… Could this be the way how interest in peers will finally happen for him?…

It may be…

As we left the studio, the kids were starting to play outside. I couldn’t help to share with Kiki how awesome it was to see him play music with the band, and he told me completely excited and hopeful I played music with them! Maybe playing with kids is like this!.

Other interactions with kids are happening along with this one, but today, Joaquin has told me so many times already I want kidsssss!!! (to race him on his tricycle), and he’s told me that he wants to play in the band. WOW. I feel so close I can almost taste the sweetest milestone I’ve been dreaming of for four years. And I am deeply grateful for our new teacher :)

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