Most parents think back on their kids’ childhoods and it feels like a blur -- it goes by so quickly. It’s like that with my daughters, but not so much with my 23 year old son Ben. Ben is autistic - not high functioning, rather somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum. In his case, this means that he lacks some basic social and communication skills necessary for him to function independently. It’s been a very slow, constant, incremental struggle to teach him how to live in our world, not his own.
Ben is at the tip of the large autistic population which has been more included in society than ever before, first in public education, now increasingly in the workplace. “Special” and “inclusion” have been pendulum points all of Ben’s life. Although some autistic children can be successfully included in regular classes, Ben has needed intensive, specialized training in the nuts and bolts issues of eye contact, attention, behavior management, language, academics, vocational training, and more.
Ben has been trained and now works independently in regular, busy kitchens -- not segregated work enclaves. Working alongside his co-workers, he can fill containers with mayonnaise, chop carrots, follow a simple recipe, and take out the trash. Ben loves music and has always been very attuned to auditory sensations. In fact, music can be distracting to him in some of the food prep jobs he’s worked at -- he’ll start singing and forget to cut the croutons.
Now that he has become an adult and aged out of publically-funded education at age 22, I’ve felt like I can step back and reflect upon Ben’s experience as a whole. Although he has accomplished a lot, poignant questions still loom: How will he progress as an adult? How will he find pleasure in life? Where will he fit in? Where will he find harmony?
He did not have to go far, as it turns out. Ben’s ultimate inclusion activity is singing with our local community choir.
The Newton Family Singers is an intergenerational group of singers whose repertoire spans traditional American folk through more recent pop. The singers range from age 5 to more than 70. They are a neighborhood group, with no auditions to join, yet they took a gamble by admitting Ben into their choir. We had visited a number of choirs in search of a place where Ben was most likely to succeed and to push him to that next step beyond his comfort zone - and mine.
While the Newton Family Singers have made no special accommodations for Ben, he has been welcomed as a member of the choir. Having a deep voice, Ben sings in the bass section and his fellow bass singers help him when he needs it. They support him and he’s learned to respond to their prompts to pay attention and to find his place in the sheet music. I don’t think Ben can form friendships as such but I know he looks forward to seeing the other basses. Furthermore, they’ve come to accept Ben as one of their own.
Things aren’t perfect. I hear Ben’s voice when he comes in too early and I notice when he somewhat subtly flicks his fingers - an old autistic behavior of his. As part of his disability, Ben does not understand that different people have different perspectives. As a result, he used to sing along with soloists, or the sopranos -- whatever part had the melody. He didn’t recognize that people with different vocal ranges sang different parts. Ben has been taught the fundamental skill of imitation, and he knows that applause is expected after performances. That’s why, if you attend one of our concerts, you will see one young man in the choir clapping along with the audience at the end of every song. Maybe one day he won’t clap with the audience, one day he will understand the different perspectives of being a performer versus an audience member.
This past season, however, Ben has learned that he is a bass and sings from that perspective. He listens to the other parts of the choir and understands the harmony that makes beautiful music. Maybe by singing in harmony, Ben is learning perspective taking through song.
I no longer come to rehearsals as Ben’s aide; caught up in the music and friendly faces, I’m now a Soprano singing with the Newton Family Singers. I rehearse at the opposite side of the choir, with an eye on Ben from afar. We have two entirely different parts to sing and Ben learns his lyrics much faster than I do.
Time continues to speed on, and Ben’s progress still moves in slow motion. But slow doesn’t mean standing still.
He’s on stage, and he’s singing his part. In harmony. With his community. And with me.
The Newton Family Singers’ next concert, April 13, 2014, will be a benefit to raise money for the Asperger’s Association of New England and the Autism Alliance of Metrowest