I have written many articles on subjects such as developing children’s strengths https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2013/03/the-amazing-power-of-building-on-a-childs-strength/ , achieving regulation, https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2012/11/part-4-achieving-self-regulation/ , significance in an individual’s development https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2012/04/recognizing-development-and-its-significance-in-each-individual/ , and sensory integration https://backmountainmusictherapy.com/2011/11/sensory-integration-meeting-the-need/ . On a day-to-day basis in my professional work, I have frequently been complimented on the degree of patience others have noticed. Most times, I truly have not felt like I was being patient. I think that if I were to take all these categories and boil them down to two ingredients that make all this possible, it would be asking why and honoring what an individual does give.
Whether I am interacting or working with children on the spectrum, those with delays, or those with emotional or behavioral difficulties, I always automatically look at what they present and ask why. Why do they do this, what is it achieving for them, and why this method. What is it that the child really and truly desires, and ultimately hopes to achieve? For example, we have all heard “negative attention is better than no attention.” This is an easy fix: just find the positive and accentuate that. One time, I had a class of about 10 school aged children. A boy with aspergers, a little more academically talented than the rest, was continually interrupting, coming up with newer and better ways to do things. For some reason, this boy had a need to dominate by his continuous better ideas. This particular group of kids had to first achieve organization before going on to anything elaborate. Finally, I brought a small tablet and gave it to the boy. I told him that we had some things to do today, and if he had any good ideas to write them down and I would put aside some time at the end to hear them. That is what we did. The next class, I implemented his idea. I continued to bring the tablet, but the ideas eventually ceased and the boy participated with the group fully and politely. It seemed his need to be heard was validated appropriately and his need to dominate was replaced by being heard: his ideas honored.
Sometimes we don’t have the complete why, but power struggles also happen for a reason. We may not know the reason, but want to avoid the struggle. For example, they young boy who comes in to Music Therapy and plainly says, “I’m not going to participate, I don’t like music,” has every right in the world, since it is not a required academic class. This boy has a right not to participate, just to behave appropriately. However, his statement feels more like bait to a power struggle. He tries not to participate some days and others he just can’t help but participate. What did he give? A simple question, “Could we use the animals again?”. The class had done a drumming story with animal puppets as props. The kids loved it. They used their imaginations and participated with ease and pleasure. I wrote his statement down so I wouldn’t forget it within the next ten minutes. I planned the next couple sessions to include the puppets and addressed him as soon as he came in. “N, guess what I remembered to bring today? The puppets”. He not only fully participated, but behaved better than anyone else. His desire and request was honored – he was heard. That was all that was needed.
There was an elementary aged girl who every class had the need to correct and rule over all her male classmates. If she did not get what she wanted immediately, or if one of her classmates did or said something that she found irritating, she was out of there! The only exception to this was in the opening circle, which welcomes all and gives everyone a chance to express themselves in a call and response manner with the rest of the class in any creative way they want. This activity she would stay for. She presented a strength one time and asked if she could sing a song for the class. I agreed. Not only has she never left the class again, but she has also become pals with one of the classmates that irritated her most. Her need to take over and correct others has turned the corner into a partnership with her fellow classmates as each week they take turns sharing their musical talent as the rest of the class supports them musically in one way or another.
There are also the children who do not communicate. What do they present for one to honor, and why do they do what they do – a very important question. We usually reach out for what we need in one way or another. We may not always reach in the healthiest way possible. However, the reaching out needs to be noticed and honored. I cringe when I hear a staff member tell a child to stop spinning my cymbal, stop stimming, stop clapping, stop flapping. In a sensory world so different from our own, with circumstances different from how we perceive the world, is this our right? Certainly there are behaviors that are dangerous or socially unacceptable. However, in the right venue, maybe some of these behaviors can be honored in an appropriate manner and navigated for use. I have written various articles on utilizing tapping and clapping behaviors and channeling these behaviors into forms of communication, and in some instances, speech. A mother recently told me her little well behaved son began to initiate, running into others and saying “excuse me”. Bewildered, she mentioned it was not done in an aggressive manner. I mentioned to her to give him opportunities for that at home in an appropriate manner, and to then instruct on the social. Give him a therapy ball (as I spoke, he went to town banging on my drum full throttle), or circumstances like this I said that are appropriate. This little boy can communicate, but probably can’t tell us why he does this. It is meeting a sensory need. Children who jump or bounce, incredibly helpful actions for vocalization, come into my studio and utilize the trampoline until the need is gone. After the need is gone, the trampoline gets used as a place to sit. The non-verbal boy I initially bought the trampoline for never uses it anymore except as a couch. However, when he is working hard to get a particular sound out, he stands up, jumps, and waves his hands before vocalizing. His jumping aids his vocalizing much like taking a deep breath for a singer before reaching for high note.
Kids on the spectrum do not have only speech needs, occupational needs, or physical needs. If they did, their diagnosis would be different. All aspects – motor, behavioral, cognitive – work together. As a human and a professional who can navigate this world in a meaningful acceptable way, I see it my job to take what a child presents and find a way to utilize it to help. In my opinion, evaluating these children by typical standards is backwards, lazy, and unfair. We are asking these kids who perceive the world very differently to do things our way. Stop spinning that cymbal and behave our way – the way we know. Would we ask a high school student to operate? No, of course not. Maybe some day, but they need the skills and the proper education first. As professionals, it is our job to look at behaviors, honor them, and ask what purpose do they serve. How can I help this child navigate the world more appropriately without jumping five to ten steps beyond what they can already do? How can I use what they already have, understand, and behave to help them? Honor what the child possesses, then ask why and implement the how. I am not being patient, I am looking, asking why, and then taking the responsibility to find the pathway of least resistance for that child.
Antoinette Morrison MT-BC