The Pressures of Performing. ASD and an Audience.

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!!


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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23 Responses to The Pressures of Performing. ASD and an Audience.

  1. Lizbeth says:

    Hi Chicike!! We had a recital last year for Alex and he was so stressed. I had him in a button down shirt (big mistake) and he progressively unbuttoned each button till he was 1/2 naked. He kept his shirt on and then chewed through the collar. Uggh. He was to perform again this year and I was all ready to pull him out of it–and he got a virus and voila, no recital!! I was never so happy cleaning puke as I was that day…

    We do have issues like that as well–testing and such. I know he knows it but as if on que he won’t perform. We came up with me watching the last few minutes and we have since stopped talking about him in front of him. It seemed to have helped.

    PS—I’m totally adding you to my sidebar–L

    • 🙂 Lizbeth! Karen is one of my FAVORITE bloggers out there. I look forward to her posts every day!

    • solodialogue says:

      Oh my gosh, I hope he does not continue undressing as his stress reliever! I’m sure that mom being out of the room might help relieve some stress. It’s funny how they appear not to be paying any attention when talked about but they know and they are listening. Also, a great idea to stop talking about it in front of him. (Thanks for the add-on!! You should already be on mine as I write this!)

  2. My dad also pushed me into music — unlike you, I played clarinet — so I was not often in a solo performance situation. When I was… I was petrified.

    The only thing I could do to get through my stage fright was to practice until my part was second nature — until I no longer had to think to make my fingers move on the clarinet keys. It’s been almost 20 years since some of my solo performances, and the memory of some of the more complicated combinations is still in my fingers — I don’t even remember the songs anymore.

    I don’t know if more practice is the key to helping your son… like you said, our kids are wired differently. The smallest thing can disrupt Kaia’s focus — to the point where it will not come back no matter how many times we practiced.

    I guess the bottom line is that even though we will never understand some of the things our kids go through, we can understand and sympathize with performance anxiety. And we can support them and help them push through — because we have been there.

    • solodialogue says:

      There is something about freezing during that music performance that can really haunt you. I must admit that having the ability to play an instrument is like learning a foreign language and I am grateful I have that knowledge. I agree that knowing first hand about the performance anxiety will help. I just want to do so much more. Maybe, I must just stand back and let it happen but I can’t do that yet. I’ll try everything else first.

  3. Big Daddy says:

    You’re description of the Bomb Shelter could have been applied to my wedding night performance.

    Seriously, I don’t know if there is a solution to the problem. It’s happened to us quite frequently.

  4. bbsmum says:

    I don’t know if this has anything to do with your son’s problems, but BB gets unbelievably anxious about ‘getting it right’, in any situation. One thing that has helped a great deal is to make ‘getting it wrong’ funny, thereby dissipating the anxiety. So sometimes I deliberately give the wrong answer to questions, then exaggerate the “I’m so silly” routine for comic effect. Or show him if I’ve made a mistake and laugh exaggeratedly at what I’ve done, making a big thing of how funny it was to get it wrong. If he realises that he’s made a mistake, I say “That was a good joke! You were funny! Now let’s do it differently” and help him to do it right. This approach really has helped him get less anxious about mistakes, though I don’t know whether it would suit everyone (maybe just families with a warped sense of humour?)

    • solodialogue says:

      Well, you do have the gift of humor that is bestowed only on a few. I think, at my son’s age, laughing will just encourage him to want to get it wrong to have someone laugh with him. The humor thing though, may come in handy during periods of his intense frustration. Sometimes if he gets mad at a toy, he will start cussing (“Fire truck”- is his standard “f-word”). If I laugh with him about how silly that is, it may make a difference. So, as usual, you have provided me with advice I can use! I love it when you drop by! 🙂

  5. spectrumdeb says:

    NT kids don’t have to show up once a week for a Dog and Pony show to demonstrate that they can flip the TV remote or put thier schoolbooks in their backpacks! Isn’t it crazy-making that we have to work and worry so damned hard to try and do the right thing? When we are in a spot where Sterling is going to have some type of Performance, I consider very carefully the reason for the recital. I am kind of jacked up here, Karen, because I’ve seen the effects of performance pressure so many times in my family. How many times in you son’s life is he going to have to sit in front of a panel and recite “your sock, my hair?” Is this ever going to keep him safe, teach him that some people can be trusted, or impart actual living skills?
    Believe me, I am in no way judging your course of treatment nor the fine professionals that are working with your son. I think this sets him up in a situation that can only result in stress-related coping strategies like stimming and wandering away. I am questioning the reason for the large audience and frequency of the weekly debacle. For a while, our whole family would go to a counseling session in which we would talk about Sterling’s social meltdowns. In a quiet, close room, the nice lady therapist would ask him what was going on with him just before an outburst, and then we would all stare quietly at him. Inevitably, he would be silent for ten or fifteen seconds, blink slowly, look up and say, “What?” He had floated away long before the questions even started.
    So, now that I have ranted for a second, here’s Mommy-to-Mommy feedback: Find out if having everyone in the room is necessary. Eliminate as many players as possible. I agree that”testing” him in a familiar routine environment that mimics his program is a super idea. Have the folks that MUST be there watch him indirectly, without staring right at him. They can look at the wall, their shoes or even at a computer screen and still hear his responses, but their laser-like focus won’t be drilling into your son’s hyper-sensitive aura. Consider lessening the frequency of the ASD Show, or do half at a time, alternating weeks. (I am assuming there are multiple “programs” that are demonstrated each time.) Above all, ask yourself and your team, “Is this performance piece a necessary part of therapy?”

    • solodialogue says:

      You know, the meetings have to happen because the whole “team” modifies his program weekly as he progresses and each person only sees him certain times through the week. The leader sees him only during the meetings and needs to know how his programs are going because it is she who makes the decision of how to handle the changes in his behavior and to determine whether and how to change his programs to keep him progressing and developing.

      I do think, based on what you and Lisbeth said about the fact that he knows we are all staring at him, maybe some of us can watch by video camera from a room next door or something of that sort so the pressure is decreased. This might be the best route. Of course, I will have little say in those choices ultimately because the professional, the behavioral therapists who make educated decisions about how to handle his programs will give me advice when I bring it up but I think it may be a very good idea. After all, as you say, how many kids his age have to put on this dog-and-pony show for a group of adults weekly? We shall see. I will update you as things progress. Thanks, as usual for your insights. 🙂

  6. Well, I’m going to be my blunt autistic self here and say that this whole thing with the testing and performance sounds like hell for a kid with an ASD.

    Your son is highly sensitive. He may not saying it to the therapists in a way they understand, but he senses the energy in the room, and he knows that there’s pressure, and he knows that there’s something called “success” and something called “failure,” and he knows that he is being judged. How many NT adults could hold it together under those circumstances? Not many.

    Then, of course, there’s the fact that this all takes place verbally. Between the overload of the people all being there together and the verbal demands, that’s a lot to ask. I’m 52 and I have a hard time keeping up with things verbally, especially when a lot of people are present. I insist on using writing as much as possible. If you put me a room with verbal testing for any extended period of time, I’d be disoriented in a big way. I might do a better job of hiding it, but that’s only because I’m older.

    Under these kinds of circumstances, the little guy is going to stim and start talking to himself, because his nervous system is defending and soothing itself. And having someone continue to ask for the right answer is sending him the wrong message. He will feel badly about himself, because he’ll realize that, as far as everyone in the room is concerned, it’s not okay for his sensitive nervous system to defend itself. And the fact is that it’s perfectly okay. It has to. He’s more sensitive than most of the people he’s dealing with, and the demands being put on him are more than he can keep up with.

    I’m not saying that you shouldn’t find help for your son’s challenges. You’re a great mom, and you definitely should. I’m just concerned about the context and its impact on him. Is there no alternative to this kind of testing? I mean, it seems to me that a good therapist could evaluate your son’s progress and write it up for others to see.

    I’m writing this as an autistic adult *and* as someone who went through exactly what you did with piano lessons and recitals (and evaluations….ugh). The last recital I did, I was 13. It was in Boston. There were kids from all over the area performing. As I was sitting there, hoping like hell that someone else would fuck up before I did, I noticed that one of the teachers had brought the sheet music for EVERY SINGLE PIECE, and was judging each kid’s performance based on it. I freaked. I got up to play my Bach Invention and you’ve never heard a Bach Invention played so quickly! And the woman with the sheet music actually told my teacher that she’d never heard Bach played so badly—a message that my piano teacher than relayed to me. Right in the recital hall.

    What your son is going through reminds me of exactly that: people with their “sheet music” judging his “performance.” Except that it’s not about a piece of music. It’s about who your son is.

    Sorry to be so blunt. I’m hesitant to post this, because I don’t want you to feel like I’m judging you. I’m not. I love the stuff you write, and it’s clear that you adore your son. I just don’t think most people understand how sensitive autistic people are and how these kinds of things affect us.

    • solodialogue says:

      There is absolutely nothing about what you’ve written that I find judgmental. The exact reason I put this out there is because I recognize that my son is stressed out from the position in which he is placed to evaluate his performance. It’s not so much testing as checking the level of mastered information so that future programs can be created and implemented to help integrate him with NTs before he begins kindergarten (perhaps next fall). The problem is when the school district personnel also show up (which appears to be a monthly thing for now) it becomes even larger than usual and he ends up with super stress.

      These therapists are good and they are well-meaning. They want to share information from different perspectives about my son with each other to help each other treat my son and bring out his full potential. The problem is that in meaning well, they have created too much stress. As I posted in another note, I think if I put a video monitor in one room and a camera in the “work room”, then the “group” can watch from another room while just my son and one person whichever tutor it happens to be goes in to program with him and check his progress. That is all I can think of for now to decrease the stress and give them the opportunity to view his progress simultaneously.

      Btw, love your story about the Bach Invention!! I wished like hell someone else would fuck up before me too!!! Too bad we weren’t playing the same festivals! Then, we could’ve kicked both the judge and your piano teacher in the ass!! Really!! People can be so rude. And don’t ever worry about posting here. Your honesty and your words are incredible gifts and I love to read them. Thanks, Rachel!

    • spectrumdeb says:

      Wow! Thanks for your perspective. My son is 13 going on 40, and it is really valuable for me to hear from you, get your first person take on this crap. Thanks for chiming in, and I hope I will see more of you around the blogiverse. BTW- I love blunt.

  7. Titan says:

    I am with what Rachel said, I also find the most extreme anxiety in having to perform anything, I discovered this mostly at dog shows when people would want me to show the “tricks” I had taught my dog, I am good with him and train him to do all sorts of tricks and assistance tasks, but having to perform these, even just in front of one person it was way too much overload for me and Id be running away, or wanting to throw up whilst “performing” and it really didn’t matter how many people were there just one person to have to perform in front of and it was too much for me. I didn’t have these challenges as a child because I was mostly left alone, but for me to be put in the same situation as above, I would completely shutdown and be terrified. I can’t give any advice because nothing can help me, but I agree with all of what Rachel said. I hope that you can get the best help for your son through this.

    • solodialogue says:

      Thank you for coming here and commenting. I am constantly amazed at how supportive the autism world community is to each other. I know my son is having difficulty with this group of people watching to see how many tasks he can “correctly” answer for them. He knows he gets applause if he gets it right and “no” when he does not give the answer that person asks for. It is difficult for me to watch my child have to do this in this group setting. I am so grateful to both you and Rachel for giving me a perspective which no one in that room have except for my 4.5 year old son who cannot communicate it.

      I do believe I’m getting the best help. But really, even with the best, sometimes things are lost in the focus. Thanks Titan. Many hugs to you and Nate!!

  8. Tina says:

    Speaking from the other side of the table, I am not there to judge anybody. My job in any evaluation I am a part of is to observe the behaviors I see and interpret them educationally.

    I am not sure why there is a need for an arena atmosphere for you son; surely someone has spoken to you about why there has to be so many people in the room. I understand that the team leader needs to be there, but the rest of the crowd could wait in another room while your son was showing what he had learned. Yes, your son will eventually have to deal with performing in front of a crowd, but why not work up to that point over time? Or go by what your son can handle on any given day–if he’s having a bad day, don’t put him in front of a crowd.

    • solodialogue says:

      Thank you Tina. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I don’t love my son’s therapists. I do. Tremendously. They have done so much to improve my son’s ability to communicate and to desensitize him to behaviors that I am amazed at his progress. The arena atmosphere has arisen because of inclusion of the school district that funds, in part, the behavioral therapy. They want to observe my son’s progress and coordinate with other therapists. I think the best solution as I have stated in other comments is to place a camera in his “work” room and have the others watch remotely. This way they can observe his behavior without him seeing they are watching. Thanks for your perspective. I understand that you may not be “judging” him but I also know at his young age, he can’t see it any other way. It’s not so much that he is having a bad day beforehand as it is that the pressure of the crowd causes the stress that then creates the behavior.

  9. spectrumdeb says:

    What a great group of people you have collected here, Karen! Ya think maybe you struck a bit of a nerve with this one????

    • solodialogue says:

      Deb, am so lucky to have the people that drop by here leave comments. I consider everyone of them (including you) who comment here my experts and my counselors. I appreciate your incredible insights, perspective and encouragement. I really could not do without you all! I am a lucky mommy. 🙂

  10. eof737 says:

    Your intuition is spot on Karen. We are distracted and self conscious at meetings about us too. I can;t imagine what it was like for him but most of us would have felt the shift, the pressure, and stares of all those eyes in the room. 🙂

    • solodialogue says:

      Thanks Elizabeth. I definitely will have to work on changing that if possible. I think a camera with a monitor in the other room is going to be the best way. 🙂

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