The Beat Goes On
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a local conference featuring Alan Sohn and Cathy Grayson, authors of the book “Parenting Your Asperger Child.” I highly value Grayson’s opinion and have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her both in my role as parent and as individual with AS. When Grayson speaks, I tend to listen. On this particular occasion, what she was speaking about was the value of marching band as it relates to students with Asperger’s Syndrome. The focus was on working towards more meaningful inclusive experiences for adolescents on the autism spectrum, but he take-away for me that day was a line I’ve replayed in my head countless times in the last six years: If your child with AS plays an instrument, get him or her in band!
That day I went home and had a heart-to-heart with my son about the decision he had just made to not take band in junior high, but rather to focus on technology with a computer elective. This was an either/or situation. While the initial thought process had been that his long-term future was more likely to be technologically rather than musically based, I could not shake the budding conviction that the key to his social future at the high school level lay in being a part of an ensemble, doing something he was good at—playing the trumpet.
So in one of those rare situations where a teenager listens to Mom and heeds her advice, my kiddo changed his schedule and signed up for band as an elective. To this day I consider this perhaps the best decision he ever made. From a social standpoint, my boy struggled throughout high school, which was not entirely unexpected. Academically he excelled, also not entirely unexpected. But by the time he got to ninth grade and was eligible for marching band, that musical wild card became the key to a winning hand. Marching band gave him a group of friends with similar interests and talents. It enabled him to have countless opportunities to practice the art of negotiation and compromise. He learned that practice makes almost-perfect and to listen even when not being directly spoken to. He discovered camaraderie and good sportsmanship, hanging in there even when in physical pain/hungry/thirsty/cold/hot. And he learned how to be a friend. Along the way his musical skills grew, and to this day I am convinced that his Aspie talents include being a spot-on marcher, but what he’s gained in those respects are the tip of the iceberg. Watching his transformation as he grew from a boy to a man as a “band geek,” I was able to send him off to Europe for three weeks last summer to participate with an Honors band ensemble. Three weeks in Europe and six different countries with a group of fellow band geeks he’d met twice before they left. But that’s the power of the band, it may be unfathomable to the uninitiated, but it is as real as the instrument my son carries with him almost everywhere nowadays.
As I mentioned in a previous column, my son has just begun his freshman year in college. He chose his college based in large part on the possibility that there was a chance that just maybe he could perhaps make the marching band at his new school. This school’s marching band has a national reputation; when he first voiced the desire a number of years ago to try out for this band, he might as well have been talking about his desire to be an Olympic pole-vaulter. Okay, son, dreams are nice, but let’s have a back-up plan, right?
Wrong. Turns out that there was no need for Plan B. He made the band. On the school’s band website, it describes the reasons a student would want to participate in this ensemble, and one of the top reasons listed is, “Instant friends.” My years as a high-school band mom have shown me that’s true. All fears, concerns, worries and random anxiety about my Aspie son being on his own hundreds of miles from home at the place where I had a less-than-stellar experience myself evaporated the moment his father’s words sunk in, “He’s in. He made the band.”