NATHHAN News Spring 1997
We began the slow process of working with the school district as they worked with our children. If you are the parent of an autistic child, you know that some lessons come agonizingly slow. And it is very frustrating because we must teach them everything explicitly over and over. Our children had to be taught to say hello and also why and to whom. They had to be taught to use utensils for eating, to hold a pencil. They had some motor skills—but didn’t seem to know what to do with their fingers, etc. As they go through life, gaps in their knowledge and application of everyday skills are surprising and sometimes disheartening. Even when our children come home from school, the teaching never ends. So they are taught at school and they are schooled at home. We have been told by the speech therapist, the social worker (who in our case, helps us find resources for teaching social skills), that our children need more than the school can give them. And we get regular "homework" assignments for our children, to be taught by the parents. Sometimes these "assignments" do not make sense and it is hard for me to do the exercises that have little relation to a useful skill.
This is how the idea of using piano lessons to strengthen fine motor skills came to me. From the time that John was 6 months old he has been fascinated or obsessed with lights. By the time he learned to walk, he seemed able to get to the light switches and turn them on and off constantly. This was not a phase. Many of you with autistic children can relate to this big time. By the time he was five, I was at the end of my wits with this. It occurred to me that perhaps John would like to press piano keys. I knew that he had some musical ability. He would sing in tune before that age of two. I thought that it might also strengthen and give some coordination to his fingers. When I floated the idea to his OT, she thought that it might be worth a try.
At the time, my neighbor asked me if I would like the piano that was taking up space in her living room. It was the right price. (Free…and they moved it for me). And we had just started going to a new church, Newhall Baptist. About the second person I knew there was my friend Beth. She played piano, and I asked her if she would attempt to teach John piano lessons. He had just turned six and was a pre-reader. She said yes, and has been his piano teacher now for four years. At first, when I would help with his lessons, I had to actually sing and place his fingers on the keys. It was tedious. I did it everyday for over a year. I think that it was good that I tried this with only one child in the beginning. To have done my older daughter along with John would have been to much. By the end of the first year and a half, John was able to practice his piano lessons with only one help session from me. Now he is getting to the point that his knowledge of music theory is beyond my rudimentary skills…and he needs help occasionally, but it has to come from Beth. And my intuition was correct; it did help with his fascination with lights.
When Erin was eight, we decided to start piano lessons from her. For Erin, piano lessons were very much an aid to her fine motor skills. Her fingers are much weaker than Johns (his are not strong). Even though Erin is older than her brother, she would not have been ready for lessons at the same age. She has auditory processing difficulties and very poor memory skills.
It was only at eight that she could remember the letters of the alphabet on a regular basis. She really doesn’t have an ear for music and could be described as a somewhat off key singer. But what she does have is a mathematical mind. And for that reason, her understanding of music theory comes much more easily for her than it does for John. Beth was amazed that Erin could read music; even though she could not read the words in the text.
We started Danielle on piano lessons this year, because of pressure from Danielle. But I must admit that it probably is too early for her. She is not able to sit still, or pay attention or remember from week to week what she has learned.
This brings up an important point. Our success has a great deal to do with our piano teacher. She really listens to me and is sensitive to the needs of my children. We do not go at the same speed as other students, and sometimes we rework difficult concepts. The word "quit" is not in our vocabulary, since piano lessons are so much more than just enrichment to us. This has helped our children in many ways that other kinds of therapy are designed to do but fail.
Piano lessons give our children a chance to succeed at something and to have a real skill. Erin was the first to do a simple offertory piece (in the evening at our small church). Then other special ed piano students followed in the months. This motivated John to want to perform. This Sunday he is going to do Joyful, Joyful We adore Him.
My kids can’t do solo’s in the church programs because their articulation is so poor. But they can have joy of performing for the Lord. And Rick and I have that joy with them.
During the last two years, the Lord gave me a verse which has helped me a great deal. It was his way of telling me what I needed to practice, despite the circumstances in my life.
"Be Joyful always, Pray continually, Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1Thess. 5:16-18.
My obedience in this matter has helped me in more ways than I can tell. I haven’t been perfect, of course. But this verse has helped me to get through two years, which have included the diagnosis of autism, the closing of my husbands plant and subsequent need for me to go to work full time. And I will tell you that there is more strength and energy of joy and rejoicing, than in despair. The Lord Himself is a gracious teacher.