Music is a bird’s answer to the noise and heaviness of words. It puts the mind in a state of exhilerated speechlessness.
- Yann Martel, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
Right now, I am listening to Hawaii’s Native Son, Kealii Reichel, singing one of my favourite songs, E O Mai. Such good memories. Good music seems to inspire posts in me, so I’m going to talk about music.
I grew up in a household where music was much loved, but remained mostly inscrutable and out-of-reach. My parents loved music, my mom favouring soft melodies and old-school country music, my dad going for “real shit kickin’ music”, jazz, Beatle-flavoured sitars and Indian music, rock n’ roll, and particularly brassy classical music. One of my earliest memories is spinning rapidly around in a circle on my carpet (The carpet had a dragon spiraling into itself, perfect for such an activity) to Stravinsky, Frankie Lane, Mahler, and George Harrison. Even in diapers I could operate the surround-sound stereo, and must have driven my parents up the wall by supplanting their evening of records with Raffi and Sesame Street music. Music meant something to me. It had melodies I could pick out, words I could sing along to. It was, in order words, a steady source of smooth certainty in what was otherwise a very chaotic and unpredictable world for me.
When I would come home crying from school because the other kids had called me “retard”, or I overheard my parents fighting over me because I was “different”, or whenever the world became too frightening to comprehend, music was my salvation. I became particularly attached to the Beatles song “Hey Jude”, playing it softly during moments when I was overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, for their love of music, my parents did not play instruments of any kind. Probably one of the meanest understandings of my childhood was expressing a wish to have a violin when I was 5 years old, and getting a plastic toy one for my birthday. I would bang on pots and pans for love of percussion, but my dad, with sensitive hearing, objected to this, and I was punished for playing with the pots and pans. When I was 10, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, he needed constant rest in order to recover from fighting off the disease and the chemotherapy, so my wishes of learning an instrument ended there. The noise would be too detrimental to his health.
Having a parent dying is a very frightening thing for any child, and I again turned to listening to music in order to work through my difficult feelings and the overload of emotions plaguing me as I watched him fade away.But I was allowed access to instruments at school. I could not take lessons for them, but I loved feeling the bang of a drumstick against the drum, and longed to feel the vibrations of the strings of a cello against my fingers as music poured out. It was the closest I ever got to learning an instrument. In my teen years, after my father died, I was diagnosed with autism, my mother had a horrible new boyfriend who was emotionally and verbally abusive move in with us, and my entire world began to crash around me. Throughout that endless assault on my emotions, my diskman (I’m showing my age here) was my constant companion. I slept little, ate minimal portions, and spent all my time outside of school taking my diskman with me and running, sometimes for miles, to the beats of heavy metal music. It was, for me, an auditory equivalent to a deep-tissue massage: Painful yet cathartic. It may seem curious that someone with sensory processing disorder took such a liking to heavy metal, but I found that rhythmic, deep, bass sounds were kinder on my ears than high-pitched noises, so metal was perfect for me, though others may not share my love of it.
Nowadays, when I stim, I stim to music. I play music before I go to bed, and when I am walking, listening to music helps me keep my balance; without music, I have a very awkward, stumbling gait that makes people suspect I’m drunk. If I could go back and change one thing about childhood above all others, I would have registered for music classes at my school, in piano and cello.
If you know someone young with autism, gauge their reaction to certain music. See if they react positively to having an instrument in their hands. It is therapeutic treasure for me to have music in my life, and while it is no substitute for my prescriptions, it enriches my life and makes my bad days more bearable.