Autism and Being Genuinely Social: The Story of Andy

This blog post was written by Voices Together Founder and CEO, Yasmine White. 

I was nine years old and there was a knock at the door. It was a Saturday afternoon. My dad put his newspaper down and got up to answer the door. A tall, lanky teenager was at the front door. His facial expression was flat as he held a squirming, unhappy beagle by the collar. The teenager said, “I brought your dog home.” My dad thanked him and introduced himself and our dog. “His name is Biggers,” my dad said, “for his big ears and my name is Jerry.” My dad held out his hand and they shook hands. He then asked the teenager, who was also our dog-rescuer, what his name was. The teenager told him that his name was Andy. He spoke in a monotone and I couldn’t tell if he was happy to see us. Andy handed Biggers over to my dad, thanked him, and made for a quick exit up the street.

My dad loved to let Biggers out of the house on Saturday by himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t walk the dog because he did. In fact, they often took long walks. It was more that my dad believed that every living thing deserved some moments of freedom. The problem came with our dog’s choice of what he decided to do with that freedom. Often we would hear the crazy beagle howling at nothing in the middle of the street or getting into someone’s garbage.

Flash forward to the next Saturday. There was a knock on the door. My dad went to the door and there was Andy holding Biggers by the collar. I’m honestly not sure in that particular instance that Biggers was getting himself into trouble but there he was at the door as Andy’s new prize. As the dog squirmed in his grip, Andy stated in a loud and earnest voice “Big-eeeears is home!” My dad invited Andy to come in and sit down in the living room with him and asked if he would like something to drink. Andy accepted and the two of them struck up a conversation. This became common on many Saturdays and that’s how Andy became an official friend of our family. I have clear memories of Andy’s voice at the door calling out in the same way with the same inflection: “Big-eeears is home!” followed by a drink, cookies, and conversation with my dad. We didn’t know it at the time, but Andy had autism and obviously enjoyed the new friend he had made in our dog and my dad. I’m not sure what they chatted about, but I do know that their friendship was mutual and lasted for years. When I got older, I remember my dad telling me that Andy had found a job and was doing well.

We continued to have many more silly beagles when I was growing up but they never had as good a friend as Andy.

The experience of getting to know Andy in our family made me realize that we’re all different, but we can all find ways to connect and make a friend. Connecting with others and learning about different kinds of people has always been a priority for me. As I combined my love of music and therapy, I realized it was important to me that everyone has the opportunity to share who they are, thrive in the world, and forge friendships similar to Andy and my father’s bond.

When I developed Voices Together in 2007, the importance of connecting socially, giving people a safe space to be who they are, and providing others with the opportunity for validation were central to the program’s design. Over the years, it has been a privilege as a music therapist to share in the power of personal growth and witness each person’s transformation as they use music to connect to the people and world around them. Voices Together helps people gain understanding in who they are, acquire skills in expressing themselves socially and emotionally, and access language through song and rhythm.

Knowing what I know now, my guess is that Andy was probably a loner. A child who has autism, however smart, truly struggles with isolation and frustration when they find themselves left out of our social world. Someone with autism often struggles to find ways to connect easily in order to make a friend. Socializing is complicated for all of us, but even more complicated for someone who isn’t able to read the social data that presents itself in our daily interactions. Socializing happens in a myriad of gestures that are spoken and not spoken, facial expressions and words that are subtle, not subtle, or have a double meaning. No matter who we are trying to support in a social setting or interact with, being present, genuine, and kind is something that is instinctively and universally understood. I will always be grateful for getting to know Andy. It is my hope that Voices Together helps us pass on kindness through genuine interaction, helps our clients grow socially and emotionally, and the powerful tool we have in music benefits everyone who comes into contact with our program.

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Why Music Therapy?

Most music therapists I know have an “elevator speech” prepared and ready for the inevitable question that weaves its way almost daily into our lives: “So, what exactly IS music therapy?” We all come up with a 10-second blurb that aims to somehow accurately explain music therapy without whipping out the ukulele or pulling up research articles on our phones.

My current speech: I work with children and adults with disabilities and use music to accomplish non-musical goals.

Short and sweet! If further interest is expressed, I’ll usually give an example of how I would use music to work on a specific goal and then talk a little about Voices Together. I welcome these questions, because they allow me to advocate for my field and educate others on the many benefits of music therapy.

All of that being said, I often wish I could take more time out of my day and really explain why music therapy is so effective. That is the inspiration behind this blog post! Here are five reasons music is a powerful therapeutic tool:

  1. Our Bodies are Wired for Music

Some of our brain’s neural networks appear to exist for the sole purpose of processing music. That’s to say that some circuits aren’t necessary for speech or sound recognition and only seem to be active when listening to music. What does this mean for the use of music in therapy? What are the implications for working with clients with, say, Alzheimer’s or a Traumatic Brain Injury? It’s exciting to think about all the possibilities.

  1. Music is Motivating

Do you have a certain song that serves as an alarm every morning? Maybe you like to make cleaning the kitchen a little more exciting by singing along to your favorite album. Research has shown that when you listen to music that you love, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the same chemical that is released when you eat something delicious… like chocolate! Dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Music is motivating because our bodies are rewarded for listening to it. Incorporating music into therapy can have powerful results because it makes therapy naturally rewarding.

  1. Music is Emotional

I’m sure we all have at least one song that is guaranteed to make us tear up a little when we hear it. Confession: I have a pretty vivid memory of ugly crying down the highway to Adele’s “Someone Like You,” shortly after a college breakup. And you know what? I felt a million times better after getting that energy out. Music has the ability to speak to all different emotions. Can you imagine what a scary movie would be like without the fear-inducing tunes? What’s a wedding without that perfect song for the first dance? How fast a song is, whether it’s in a minor or major key, how loud it is, lyrics, can all cause different emotional responses. Music therapists harness the emotional aspects of music to bring more depth into therapy.

  1. Music is Social

Imagine seeing one of your favorite musicians at Madison Square Gardens in NYC. The seating capacity at the Garden is 18,200! I find it to be incredibly beautiful and powerful that 18,200 people can come together, from all walks of life, to share something as emotional, moving, and purely human as music. The music psychologist, Stefan Koelsch, has found that music affects our ability to connect with each other. Music triggers circuits in the brain that are related to trust, cooperation, and empathy. As a music therapist, and someone who has received therapy myself, I know that opening up to a therapist (i.e. a complete stranger!) can make you feel extremely vulnerable. Music can facilitate a strong therapeutic relationship quite quickly by creating that trust, cooperation, and empathy.

  1. Music has Structure

Most of the popular songs on the radio today have pretty similar structures. There are usually a few verses with a chorus in between them. Sometimes they’ll get fancy with a bridge, but for the most part the music we like is organized, predictable; and that is pleasing to our brains. Imagine a group of six elementary-aged children with various developmental disabilities in a music therapy session. A goal of this group might be to learn basic social skills, such as taking turns. Using song structure, a music therapist could develop an activity that uses music to prompt, say, passing a drum to a peer. Music therapists are trained live-musicians as well as trained clinicians, which allows the therapist to adapt the music to each specific client, meeting her where she is and gearing the music to her success.

If you read this post and would like to learn more about music therapy, I encourage you to check out the American Music Therapy Association website: http://www.musictherapy.org/

You might also like to check out Voices Together’s website: http://voicestogether.net/

Thanks for reading,

Kacie Walker, MT-BC

Welcome to Our Blog!

It’s finally here! The moment you have all been waiting for! Voices Together finally has a blog.

Now that the school year has ended, and summer is in full swing, there is extra time (can you believe it?) to tackle items on the ever-growing Voices Together to-do list. One of these items is to provide regular blog posts for you: our clients, donors, and supporters.

The hope is to give you exciting updates, interesting articles, and food-for-thought related to our mission to create positive, empowering change in the lives of those we serve.

If you have any questions, topics of interest, or fun blog ideas, feel free to leave them in a comment below. I am all ears and would love the extra inspiration!

Be keeping a lookout for future posts soon and thank you for reading!