Monday, October 12, 2015

All the Joy, All the Sorrow 2.0

Almost two years ago now, I wrote a series of posts called "All, the Joy, All the Sorrow" (link). In the initial post I told the story of how I got an e-mail from Sky's after school art teacher as I rode in the car on the way home from the city art museum where Sky had won a prize for this picture. She was writing to tell me she was kicking him out of her after-school program because "his behavior upset the other children."
He created this in elementary school art class when he was 8. I had it framed to try to preserve it for him.
That moment in the car--my immense joy for my son and his sweet connection with his elementary school art teacher who clearly "got him" turned to gut-wrenching panic as I tried to figure out how to break the news to him--encapsulates for me the what it's like to parent a child on the autism spectrum. Amazing things happen when your kid sees and experiences things differently than most people. At the same time, heartbreaking things happen when your kid sees and experiences things differently than most people. You have to learn to take the good with the bad, and it can be rough.

Over the past two weeks, we've discovered Sky has great talent for music. We've also had to explain to him that we can't really ask the principal to take action against a boy who punched him on the bus, since he was probably acting in self defense in order to get Sky to stop hitting him on the shoulders. (Sky: "I was just trying to bug him, Mom, I don't know why he hit me." Me: "Don't you think he was trying to get you to stop?" Sky: "He never said he didn't like it." Me: "I'll be he was giving you all sorts of non-verbal cues, Buddy. Next time, don't touch him." Sky: "But, he was trying to hurt me, and I wasn't trying to hurt him." Me: "I know, Buddy. But, I think if I tell Mr. N, he will just tell you not to touch other kids on the bus. How about this: why don't you try keeping your hands to yourself. Then, if the boy is mean to you, we will know he was picking on you and we can tell Mr. N." Sky: "Ok. I guess that makes sense."), and we've had to take him to the hospital to get stitches in his head due to a playground accident caused by kids who may or may not be his friends and who may or may not have been being mean to him. Sky thinks they were just playing (and it sounds like this was probably the case), but he doesn't really know, so neither do we.

So, you know, all the joy, all the sorrow.

I've suspected Sky was musically-inclined since he was 18 months old and humming along to the subtle bass line in the songs we listened to in the car. He can perfectly mimic the sounds of everything from a train running on the Yamanote line in Tokyo to the songs of a finch sitting at the bird feeder outside our window. He can also harmonize or improvise when he's singing even though he doesn't realize he's doing it. 

Most people have never seen these skills; Sky's too embarrassed to be in choir--singing in front of people turns him into the class clown--and he hates practicing piano or performing for anyone. Still, I've continued to insist he take piano lessons and encouraged him to sign up for fifth-grade band even when he expressed nothing more than sheer ambivalence about both. And, I wondered if I was crazy to push these things until one day when I noticed that Sky was creating a soundtrack for our lives on the piano. I don't know how many times he'd sat and just started playing songs of his own creation because I wasn't really paying attention. Until I was. And then I understood that he hated practicing because he'd already internalized the basics of how a piano works and didn't see the need for pointless repetition. 

Some of the songs he was creating were really good, so I decided to start recording them. This is one of my favorites:

Once I figured out he understood piano in much more complex ways than his limited experience should have allowed for, I asked his teacher to start giving him harder and harder songs to learn.  I also knew that I shouldn't let Sky quit fifth-grade band before we figured out why it was so upsetting to him. For weeks, he'd been refusing to practice the trombone Big Sissy had loaned to him, and every week when I picked him up from after school band practice, he was on the verge of tears.

When I'd asked him what was wrong, he couldn't explain it. 

"Are the kids being mean?" I'd ask. 

"No," he'd reply. 

"Are you sure?" I'd ask. 

"Yes," he'd reply. 

"Don't you like the trombone?" I'd ask. 

"I don't know," he'd reply. 

This went on for weeks. Then one day, he said band was too stressful and he didn't want to go to after school practices anymore. At my urging, before he quit, he agreed to try my clarinet.

That day, when I picked Sky up from band, he was giddy. 

"How'd it go?" I asked. 

"Great!" he beamed. "But the girls who showed me how the clarinet worked seemed really surprised I could play songs. I don't know if they were really surprised or if they were just being sarcastic." 

He wanted to pull out his clarinet and play the songs for me on the spot. 

"Let's wait until we get home," I suggested. 

"Good idea," he agreed. 

When we got home, he showed me the four songs he'd mastered in the 30 minutes since he'd first learned to make a sound with the clarinet. They included Ode to Joy and a section from Dvorak Symphony No. 9. After his next piano lesson, he added more songs to the list of ones he could play on the clarinet. I was never musically inclined, even though I took piano lessons, guitar lessons, and shamisen lessons for years and played clarinet in the band from 6th through 12th grade. Despite hours and hours of practice, I could never make up a song or transpose music from one instrument to the next. Sky can, though. And, God only knows how long he's been able to do so.

Because Sky is such an outside-of-the-box (outside of this universe?) thinker, we can't quite grasp the shape of his knowledge or figure out how to best help him develop his talents. He's never understood which of his impulses are socially acceptable for sharing with the world and which of them need to be reigned in. Some days I fear that means that his gifts will stay locked inside him forever--that I won't be paying attention and will miss a glimpse of the brilliance that lies within him. It's so exciting to see his creativity and talent shine and so frightening to think that we could possibly miss it.

You know, all the joy, all the sorrow.....

1 comment:

Princess Morag said...

Wow - that is so amazing I'm glad he agreed to try the clarinet! Hoping to experience more of the joy in our household soon.