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Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Musical Triumph - A Band Camp That Worked

Today, Tom (age 12) played his clarinet in a concert that marked the end of a two-week "band camp" program - and when it was over he came up to me with a beaming smile, saw my face, and said "You're thrilled!" I was.

The camp program, which included as many high school aged "staff members" as it did "campers," was mainly geared to middle school and high school kids with a serious interest in music. Out of about 30 kids, only two were younger than Tom - and most were much older. So far as I know, Tom was the only camper with "special needs," and the camp was in no way therapeutic: it was three hours a day of solid, intensive, challenging music instruction.

At the end, these kids were playing far above the usual junior high and high school level of performance. The pieces were truly challenging: "Take Five," "The Barber of Seville," "Phantom of the Opera," and so on. Tom is a solid clarinet player with some experience playing in bands - but he's never performed on this level.

What made this program work for Tom?

The bottom line for success wasn't knowledge of autism, specialized instruction or expensive aides. Instead it was, very simply, good teaching - and a knowledge of what makes kids tick.
George, the band leader in charge of the program, knew of Tom's autism. Joe, the woodwind instructor, learned about Tom's diagnosis on day one. Between the two of them, here are the simple, low-tech, highly effective steps they took to make the experience successful for Tom:

  1. Transposing the actual sheet music so that it reflected a 6th grade level of musical knowledge (clarinetists don't seem to play the upper register until they're older than Tom is)

  2. Spending a little one-on-one time with Tom to be sure he was truly reading and following the music.

  3. Seating Tom front and center in front of the conductor, and from time to time recalling his attention by saying his name.

  4. Occasionally seating a high schooler next to Tom to be sure he was following the more difficult music (apparently he was playing the flute part by ear instead of reading the clarinet part!)

  5. Providing regular high fives and encouragement (something all the students received throughout the two weeks)

  6. Focusing on the music rather than on acquisition of "appropriate social skills."

Both my husband Peter and I found ourselves thinking "If only the school district had put accommodations like this in place, we may never have needed to start home schooling!" But they didn't. And we did.

Parents and teachers may disagree with me, but I have a theory about why Tom has done so well in the last year with community inclusion.

This year, we placed him in typical small-group programs - including music, bowling, tennis, gym, and so forth - with instructors who had no training at all in working with kids with autism. But those instructors - Henry, George, Scott, Mike, Steve - were all men. Men teach differently from women: in general they're more focused on skills and outcomes than on process, more concrete in their directions, and less likely to worry about whether members of a group are sharing thoughts and feelings. For Tom, all these elements seem to be plusses.

Up until this year, Tom had never worked with men - mainly because there are so few males in educational or therapeutic roles, and everything he did involved teachers and therapists.

Every one of the men Tom has worked with this year has an agenda - but none of those agendas has anything to do with social skills, behavioral therapy or even making friends. Their agenda is focused on building skills and having fun. And Tom can do both. In fact, he does a terrific job at bowling, swimming, tennis, music and much more: his challenge is not the activity but social communication.

I'm not suggesting that Tom doesn't need help with social communication. And I'm certainly not suggesting that he will never again work with women (in fact, he will be working with a terrific female math tutor and a spectacular female speech therapist in the fall).

But I've got to say that community programs run by men and focused on real, meaningful outcomes have made a huge difference in our lives. And what really delights me is knowing that all of these activities - music, sports, hiking, birding, and more - can be a part of Tom's life for as long as he lives.

Power By Ringsurf


The Glasers said...

Many may bristle at what you wrote, but I think it is fabulous that you have found inclusion opportunities off the beaten path! I too have always found the kind of people who do best are not always the ones knowledgeable. Too much knowledge can spell disaster if the person is not willing to listen and apply common sense!

Tom looks like he is beaming with joy at his music camp!

Lisa Jo Rudy said...

I'm sometimes feel that people are "seduced" into paying outrageous fees to therapists who really know less than parents do and FAR less than more experienced non-therapists who have worked with kids of all sorts for many years.

This may sound nuts, but in nine years I have found ONE therapist for Tom who I thought was worth paying. And she's right here on Cape Cod! He's had OTs, PTs, social skills therapists, speech therapists, floortime therapists, dance therapists, music therapists... and quite frankly about 75% of it seemed like a lot of overpriced nonsense to me.

The remaining 25% was very basic skills-building stuff - how to hop, skip, throw a ball; how to string together words into a sentence; and so forth.

Guess I'm pretty unorthodox LOL - maybe it comes from growing up Unitarian??