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.