My son, Kipper, as his Grandad use to call him, was diagnosed at age 2 with moderate-severe ASD. By the age of 12, he had collected additional diagnoses of Expressive Language Disorder, Dyslexia and ADHD, and had attended no less than 9 educational placements including a period of home education.
His pre-school years were very difficult, as we adjusted as a family and attempted to identify strengths we could work with to enable him and us a quality of life. Spotting early on when approaching friends houses with musical doorbells, that he could sing the tune in the identical key it was subsequently played in, and that he would hum along loudly to the pitch of bus engines as they changed with the speed we travelled, we decided to try some music therapy. Other therapies prior had been abandoned as therapists was never able to engage Kipper to receive it.
Music Therapy was different
Music therapy was different. Through the rhythm and sounds Kipper became increasing interested, and began at a very basic level to take turns, fill in the musical gaps that were deliberately left open for him to, and to learn how to wait and to share. Sadly, the therapy was limited in availability, but it did show us how powerful music could be, and when he reached an appropriate age, we arranged for him to have both Violin and then piano lessons with our local Local Authority Music Service. Sadly, though cheaper than other options, only available to those who have available or can prioritise finances.
At first, as a parent, I found this a bit stressful to arrange. Kipper needed quite specific ways of teaching to ensure he attended to instructions and understood what was expected, and he had already by then attended a number of school placements. However, I found the Music Service sensitive to my concerns and I was supported to communicate directly with the teachers, who I was reassured were considered carefully for their ability to work with me and Kipper in this way.
Fairly quickly Kipper successfully progressed and became good enough to join the Music Service Orchestra, whose conductor and staff were also willing to make the reasonable adjustments I requested to make it accessible. For example, I observed at one time that Kipper was calling out regularly, expressing impatience when other sections were asked to play, and also disrupting some of the other players. I designed a tick-sheet for him of tasks he could engage in at those times to avoid being disruptive, and the conductor agreed to refer him to it until it became an established habit and the sheet was no longer needed. This happened fairly quickly.
song, music, poetry and art
At just age 8, Kipper was moved to his 8th Educational placement in a resource unit attached to a mainstream Local Authority school. This school was especially well-known for both its specialist knowledge with regards to behavioural analysis, but also its considerable commitment to the arts, especially music. Starting this school with no concept of history or time-lines, few connectives or conjunctions in his spoken or written language, I was surprised how keen they were to include him in mainstream topic work and history. But through the combination of song, music, poetry, and art, he has developed not only an in-depth knowledge of Native American History, but a good understanding of the concept of history itself, which later enabled him to participate successfully in their topic of Tudors (Also supported in school with music) and to produce a timeline on our dining room wall from his own research.
Socially, Kipper’s difficulties can mean he has reduced motivation to attend to learning opportunities outside of his limited interests, and that means not easily developing an awareness of cultural and social topics as well as vocabulary that can support his inclusion amongst his peers. Our confidence that the Music Service knew him well and could work with us meant he was able to join their new Glee choir which introduced him to popular current music and bands. Recognising song played on the radio that he knew well, triggered his interest enough for him to learn the words to other songs, which has supported him a little with social interaction and acceptance.
His school were a great support in helping this dream come true
From the skills learned through participation in the Glee Choir (such as following direction, standing to sing, facing the audience, singing loudly, not fidgeting), Kipper successfully passed the audition and trial to become a member of a local Children’s Chorus, whose standard is high enough to be able to supply children for high profile Operas in London and recordings for well-known pop stars. His own opportunities have been to sing in churches, theatres and The Royal Albert Hall, which was a huge deal to him given his special interest in London Buildings. His school were a great support in helping this dream come true, by practising with him coping strategies for the sensory environment, and the choir dedicated a member of staff to oversee his needs. Since then he has sung with the choir at The Royal Albert Hall twice more but without needing any support.
As a member of his school orchestra, Kipper progressed from the back row sitting next to a Teaching Assistant, to Leader of the Orchestra without support in just 2 years. The importance of music within this school meant the orchestra performed on many occasions, and the Leader of the Orchestra was expected to come forward at the beginning of each performance to the applause of the audience. Not only did this develop Kipper’s confidence, but it raised his profile with his school peers, enabling him to be respected, protecting him somewhat from bullying due to his differences.
He once tuned a whole guitar a semi-tone out for his own amusement
This is also true when Kipper has attended various youth camps. Playing along to camp songs or daytime singing sessions, or simply performing when there has been an opportunity to, has enabled him to hold some regard, even when he might make a loud and confusing request of the singers that they don’t sing the next one in Eb major. He has also often been called upon to help tune instruments when electric or internet tuners aren’t accessible (though he once deliberately tuned a whole guitar a semi-tone out for his own amusement so do be careful if you use his services).
Kipper’s Secondary school, his 9th and hopefully last educational placement before 16, is too small to host an orchestra, but his skills on the piano are already being used well for their Christmas performance being shown the day after he takes his grade 5. Considered the equivalent of a GCSE, this grade will provide UCAS points he could well benefit from should he continue to progress at the phenomenal rate he has so far, and a rate that far exceeds the trajectory we were given when he received his diagnosis at just 2.
In February, Kipper will be auditioning to become a member of a National Youth Group. This audition is by invitation, from having been noticed for his ability and commitment in youth scratch bands at a couple of music events recently. If he passes, it will give him opportunities to perform nationally, occasionally internationally, and to form relationships based on shared interests.
We see the potential for a network of support and a quality of life that is not now solely dependent on us
Like most parents of children with the kinds of disabilities Kipper has, worrying about his future can keep us awake at night. The world is a confusing place and the ability for someone like Kipper to get into trouble unintentionally and without understanding why, are enormous. However, as we watch how music has enabled Kipper to develop so many skills, to participate, practice and enjoy what might have been otherwise aversive experiences, to develop peer groups who might not seek out his company for gossip or social events but who respect him for what he can contribute musically, we see the potential for a network of support and a quality of life, that is not now solely dependent on us or when we are gone, the social care system.
Music education is not an extra or a luxury. Like art, sport, outdoor learning and the other school subjects at risk, music education is an essential element for independence, inclusive practice and social cohesion.