When I was about a year older than my son is now (between ages 5-6), my mom started taking me to piano lessons. I don’t really remember a lot about those early days of piano, but I do remember that I had fun. I remember playing the standard children’s songs and holiday fare. When I did well enough, I’d get a sticker placed on the sheet of music I’d learned.
As I got older, the music got harder. I was switched to classical music. I could not always understand the melodies. There were scales and finger exercises and I was instructed to practice an hour both before and after school each day, which I hated. What had been a beautiful beginning was sullied. But I continued on for 11 long years.
During the course of those older years, I would fib about the amount of time I practiced when my mom was gone. I would cry and fight and pout. It did me no good. To top it all off, my piano teacher and my mom thought it would be a most excellent idea to enter me into music festivals and force me to play recitals. I would practice and practice one piece of music, perhaps an Invention by Johann Sebastian Bach or an allegro Bagatelle by Bela Bartok. Both were sources of my suffering.
The moment of performance pressure would come. Many of these competitions would happen in a church basement (often ironically labeled “Bomb Shelter” – since my performances would often “bomb” but I was never “sheltered” from the humiliation that ensued). My name would be called. The protocol was to face your
executioners audience, announce the piece of music you were about to play, adjust the piano bench to the grand piano and you would sit, place your hands in your lap, pray that you’d get it right, and go for it.
All of the above occurs in the kind of silence you get from guests at a golf match. All eyes are on you. There were no distractions, no cell phones, no crying children, no talking or reading a book or paper. Everyone was focused on nothing but you.
It was too much pressure. Not always, but often enough, in the middle of playing a piece of music, I would ask myself -wait, what comes next? My mind would go completely blank. I could not remember the next measure. I could not continue. Utterly, I failed. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Disappointment for my mother. Just awful feelings. I would sit down in my folding chair to meager polite clapping.
Why bring this up? Because I am seeing vague parallels between my piano recitals and my son’s behavioral therapy meetings.
If you are not familiar with behavioral therapy, at least the type my son is in, this is how it works. My son works one-on-one several hours per day with two to three different tutors five days a week. They work on specific skills through something called programs. The programs require my son to perform tasks which teach him skills, many of which neuro-typical children do not need assistance in learning.
At the end of each week, there is a a meeting involving his “team”, my son and me. At these meetings, my son’s progress or lack thereof is discussed as well as any questions or problems I’ve seen on the home front. His team includes a team leader, a field supervisor, lead tutor and the two other tutors who work with him throughout the week. During these meetings the “team” discuss his programs and my son is required to sit in the therapy chair and demonstrate the skills he is being taught, has mastered or is just starting.
Today, we had that weekly meeting. Over an hour before it started, he was alone with his lead tutor working his programs. One of them is “my”, “your” program, teaching him the appropriate pronoun to use. She asks whose sock is this and points to her foot. He answers, “Your sock” and receives praise. She asks whose shirt is it and touches his shirt. He answers, “My shirt”. Hooray. They go through this series until she arrives at her hair. He has left the building. His eyes wander around the room. There is no eye contact. He begins to softly talk to himself.
“No,” she says to bring him back. “Whose hair?” she asks holding her hair. He fails to make eye contact and says, “My hair.” She corrects him and tries again. He gets it right. Other than this one question, he has answered them all correctly.
Everyone begins to arrive for the meeting. In addition to the team, his speech and occupational therapists show up. All six of them and me sat down to watch my son perform. He was called to the table and instructed to perform. He started out fair but his performance rapidly declined and there is no eye contact. He self-talks. He answered inappropriately with the same “my”, “your” program he had done so well on less than an hour before the group assembled.
Overall, he simply did not respond to many questions for which he knows the answer. At his “recital”. In front of a crowd. He mentally left the building.
I have a very strong suspicion he was stressed by the number of people in the room watching him. He is certainly not able to tell me he was stressed. He does not even know the word. But I know. I know the feeling. And even if he can’t articulate it, I never want him to suffer that fear that he will be unable to perform.
According to an article in Psychology Today, many highly practiced activities, from a golf putt to a memorized speech, are messed up when a person consciously tries to control them. It is referred to as paralysis by analysis. When we are under pressure, apparently the area of our brain where we store our working memory (the prefrontal cortex) stops functioning appropriately. I have no idea how this translates to our ASD kids but I found it very interesting information nonetheless.
In the “real world” out there among the neuro-typicals, my kid will not be given a special needs pass to make it. So, I must find a way to calm his stress to allow him to “perform” at his peak when faced with an audience because, for the immediate future, the only testing he will be doing will not be in writing, but oral. I always hated the oral exam.
Looking back to my own experience with recitals, I know that the few times I actually placed at the top of the competition was when I really knew that material and I did the whole scenario from walking up to the piano, to announcing the music, adjusting the seat, hands in lap and playing the piece. When I took the time to do all these things to duplicate the conditions under which I was to perform and practiced under those same conditions, I did okay.
The therapists are duplicating the testing conditions by performing the programs the same in therapy as in front of the group. The location was different and the number of people in the room was different on this occasion. Since I believe my son knows most of the material he is being taught right now, I think we may just need to add more conditions that mimic the meeting setting, such as inviting observers to watch the program and practice more with him. After all is said and done, it may just be as simple as my mom used to tell me – practice makes perfect.
If anyone has any suggestions for this situation where an ASD child goes into his own world in a testing situation, I would love to hear from you in the Comments below. I just love hearing from you all anyway!!