Music, Autism, and Inclusion by Laurel Collins
My 16 year old son with autism has two loves in his life: teddy bears & music. The music he likes is on the radio, the same top 40 pop songs most kids like; it’s something he gets lost in. He dances with his head, sometimes his body is so rigid, others’ eyes view it as awkwardly swaying. With padded headphones, which don’t cause him sensory discomfort and an iPod, on a walk or sitting in the car listening to the radio, he does his own version of musical head-banging. It makes him happy.
Over the years, we have included Andrew in nearly everything his siblings do. No matter that he is now 5’10 and not that cute little boy I could once scoop up into my arms mid-supermarket meltdown and take home, he belongs in our community. This year, he wanted to do something his sisters love, which is go to a concert. I’m talking a big concert in a big outside amphitheater with singers singing songs he knows. We are fortunately able to sit in a box which provides some privacy from being knocked over by others dancing.
Diane White is a manager of the Xfinity Center/Mansfield,where we have season tickets. For years, she has known Andrew by description through me. She was excited that Andrew was finally coming to a show. So excited in fact that she invited him for a private visit the day before.
It was a simple act of kindness, taking a step to set him up for success and feel as included as everyone else there.
Andrew, our behavior therapist Katie, and I made our way down on a Friday, Andrew clutching his oldest and favorite teddy bear, a social story being previewed with him of what he would see. Upon arrival outside the gates, he was greeted by Diane and her warm smile, calm and kind words.
She took him everywhere, first where he would enter, to the restaurant we would eat in; she asked what table he wanted to sit at. She showed him the private restrooms he would use, walked him around the arena and showed him our seats, explaining how loud it would be the next day. We reminded him that’s why he was bringing headphones and could ask for a break anytime.
She then showed him another space in one of the on-site offices. It ended up being where some of the police working details congregated at the end of the night. It was not fancy, but it was away from the noise, if needed. It was a novel, creative accommodation for a venue that had been open for 35 years. Andrew left excited and we listened to the music we would be seeing live on the Bluetooth (thank you, playlists).
On concert day, we were led by Di to the table Andrew had selected in the restaurant. On it, she had placed a sign labeled “Andrew’s friends” & decorated with a teddy bear. The venue staff (from hospitality to security) had all been prepped for Andrew’s visit. Being a worried mama, I didn’t want him to get lost and not be able to ask for help. As we were eating, Diane approached Andrew, who was sitting with his bear, and introduced him to her teddy bear “Ozzy”, a rock-and roll bear wearing a leather jacket and holding a guitar. She gave it to him, saying Ozzy would be happier with him and his bears than at her house.
Andrew was joyful seeing singers whose songs he knew, dancing in his own way. Taking it all in was hard for him, but there was a smile on his face. Yes, there were walks and breaks needed. Thanks to Diane, however, and the fact she took time out of her life to make him feel prepared, Andrew had the night of his life.
That’s what inclusion is- including a child with special needs with kindness and joy, not simply out of a sense of obligation. “Ozzy” and Bear Collins have become good friends and have now gone to 2 more shows together. Andrew has become the “mayor” of the venue and the staff treats him with dignity, respect, and kindness. You can see him relax when someone says “hi Andrew”; these are people he feels safe with. His people. I suspect some learned as much from him as the joy he experiences, they see the strengths of people with autism, that there is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, he brings smiles to their faces.
Music brings many of us joy. It brings Andrew to a new place, his autism perhaps taking a break for an hour or so; he gets to do what every other kid does. Thanks to Diane, who set him up for success, he not only can access live music, but have FUN. Seeing him happy and truly included makes my heart smile.
Laurel Collins is a single mom of four teenagers who lives autism 24/7. In her free time, she works as a special education advocate & consultant, supporting other parents in ensuring their children receive the educational supports they need to access learning and make awesome progress. to read more of Laurel’s Blogs click here