I have been thinking about a session I had last week with one of the men I work with who is on the autism spectrum. He and I have worked together, first in a small group and now individually, for the past ten years. I have noted that I often feel quite lost in his sessions. While it seems to be very important to him to have an opportunity to get out of his living area and walk to the Music Room (which is in another building), he generally just sits quietly when he gets there. Occasionally, he’ll reach out and take one of the instruments I place near his chair (he is clear that he does not want to get up and come to the piano or explore any of the other instruments around the room), putting it back shortly thereafter. He doesn’t use speech to communicate, although occasionally he may vocalize quietly. So quietly, in fact, that I can barely hear him.
I have been slowly making my way through Music Therapy with Adults with Learning Disabilities (Watson, ed., 2007), and I admit I felt relieved when I read the following:
“The music made with adults with learning disabilities will be varied, as with other clients, but there may be particular characteristics. The therapist may find that she is working with very little material (for example, when working with clients with profound and multiple learning disabilities). This demands that the therapist is able to wait and listen, avoiding playing to fill the silence rather than in response to the client. Other clients, whilst bringing music, may find it hard to initiate or lead music, leading to fragility in the contact between the therapist and client, where the therapist may feel as though they have complete responsibility for sustaining the music.” (Watson, p. 28)
I frequently feel as if I’m doing most of the musical work in my sessions at the institution. Obviously there are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, the people I work with have movement challenges, making it very difficult (as Watson comments) to initiate and/or sustain interactions, musical and otherwise. Another likelihood is that living in an institution for many years can bring about an intense case of learned helplessness. I think, also, there tends to be an idea that I’m the one who knows how to make music, so it’s sort of left to me to do the main music-making. Put another way, this is a setting that lends itself strongly to maintaining specific roles.
At any rate, during this particular session, I had a strong image of the notes from the music I was playing just bouncing off of my client and falling quietly to the floor. I mentioned it to him, and then I let my mind wander around with that thought for a while. If you read this blog regularly, you know that I am a firm believer that the feelings (and songs) that come up for me (and all therapists) while in the middle of a session are important pieces of information. Naturally, it occurred to me to wonder (out loud) whether he too might be feeling a sense of ineffectiveness- in other words, of not having an effect on his life, on the people around him- a powerlessness in the face of the unfixability of...his life? His surroundings? His body (he has been going through some health issues lately and really has difficulty with medical type people)?
He didn’t make any clear overt response to my suggestions that day, but, as it happened, the following week, on our way to the Music Room, it was snowing out, and he was actually singing! He had a quiet little melody which he was humming (with enough volume so I could hear that it was an improvised tune), and, while it was difficult to make out, it was clearly melodic. Of course the minute we got to the Music Room he stopped singing, but he did add a few vocal sounds to the session. Maybe it means something, and maybe it doesn’t...but it was nice to hear him sing.
Watson, T. (2007). Music Therapy with Adults with Learning Disabilities: Sharing Stories. In T. Watson (Ed.), Music Therapy with Adults with Learning Disabilities (pp. 18-32). Great Britain: Routledge.