I’m very proud of every single thing that my son, Nolan, has accomplished over the years. The fact he’s succeeded despite dealing with the challenges of having Autism and also being nonverbal makes it that much more satisfying.
It’s not hyperbole for me to say that some of his triumphs, such as when I get to witness him do something I’ve never seen him do before, are overwhelming. These are the moments I’m glad writing letters and the exorbitant rates tied to long-distance telephone calls have gone the way of the Pony Express, and I can share what happened with family, friends and acquaintances via social media almost immediately. Good news does indeed travel fast. I think my record for typing a post, attaching a picture and posting to Facebook is 52 seconds.
Then there are the really special and successful moments with Nolan of which I get to be a part. Moments that, no matter how many times I experience them, the words to describe them do not always come so easily.
Nolan has been attending music therapy sessions at a local studio for nearly eight years. In that time, he’s progressed from melting down at least a couple of times during a session to consistently being able to actively engage with his music therapist for the duration of a once-a-week, 45-minute session. He’s even given me hope that one day with a lot of practice, and much more patience on dad’s part, he might be able to play a recognizable song on his digital piano.
That was one of the reasons why Nolan’s music therapist asked me last month if Cindy and I would write a couple paragraphs for the studio’s inaugural quarterly online newsletter sharing what music therapy has meant not only to our son, but also to us. I don’t know how many clients she currently works with – it was close to 30 a few years ago – but I know she stays very busy on any given week. The fact she, the studio’s owner, and the other music therapists chose to kick off their newsletter by featuring my son is a thrill, yet it’s also very humbling.
Pre-pandemic, I would sit in the waiting room and sometimes talk with the parents or guardians of other kids who had sessions scheduled the same time as Nolan. Sure, I always enjoyed hearing about how well their child was doing, be it with music therapy and/or another area in his or her life. But I really enjoyed seeing the effect music had had on the kids, several of whom were noticeably happy as they either began or finished a session. A few of them had legitimate musical chops, but most of them were just like Nolan: kids and young adults utilizing music to help them deal with whatever challenge or challenges they might be facing. The staff at the studio could have chosen any another client, and his or her story would have been just as, if not more, compelling than ours.
Nolan’s former county case worker suggested to Cindy and me when Nolan was finishing second grade that perhaps music therapy could be a beneficial supplement to the in-home therapy services he was receiving at the time. We’d seen some signs that Nolan enjoyed music, but we didn’t know what to expect. I could only hope for the outcome that, after thinking about it for a few days, I wrote for the newsletter:
"Quality father-and-son time can mean many things. It can mean tossing the football in the backyard. It can mean getting under the hood of a car and tinkering with the engine. It can mean just enjoying each other's company and doing nothing on a lazy Sunday afternoon. For me, it means being a part of my son Nolan's weekly 45-minute sessions every Monday afternoon at [the music therapy studio]. Oftentimes, they're the best 45 minutes of my – and I think it's safe to say – our week.”
Monday afternoons after school can be a scramble as I typically have 15 minutes or less to get Nolan home, get him a snack, and make sure he takes a bathroom break before we have to leave for his session. But neither of us minds. The music therapist and I get to chat here and there during a session, which is something I really appreciate. Nolan typically starts asking for her on his iPad days before his next session. Last week, he was adamant the day after his session that he wanted to see her again – now.
“Nolan … has been working with [his music therapist] since the summer of 2014, and his growth has been nothing short of incredible. [She] works with Nolan on turn-taking, communication, and working through difficult moments, and he's come a long way since those first early, challenging sessions. But the best part for me is that Nolan inherited from Cindy, who was a talented musician in high school, a love of music and a talent of his own that is starting to shine through. One of the positives of the COVID-19 pandemic is that I get to witness Nolan's sessions firsthand, and it has been simply amazing to watch him keep a perfect beat, play multiple instruments appropriately, and in a couple of instances, change keys while playing a song.”
Each session is structured with a greeting song after Nolan enters the room – during which he’s asked either to tap his feet or clap to the beat, or he’s asked to vocalize on cue – and a farewell song at the end. In between, the therapist asks Nolan to make choices from the music therapy folder on his iPad. He may choose from several instruments to play, but the therapist might ask him at which tempo he wants to play and then make him play at that speed, which he is very capable of doing well. It comes in handy for songs such as “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which doesn’t pack the same punch if it is played at the same tempo as “Enter Sandman.”
The music therapist also has a great feel for Nolan’s sensory needs. If he needs to take a break from working, she’ll allow him to choose between listening to a song on her phone or hearing her sing. Feeling angry or frustrated? She’ll grab one of the drums in the studio and let him bang out what’s bothering him – in rhythm.
(The final paragraph I wrote was deleted from the newsletter, most likely due to the limited space available. I, however, have no such constraints).
“Nolan is thriving [with music therapy], and we have [his music therapist] to thank for that. While she's a modest person who will say that the music is the magic, she is magical. But then again, so are all the music therapists at [the studio]. It's an incredible place, and Cindy and I are so very grateful that Nolan is a part of it."
Nolan has been blessed to work with some incredible people since his diagnosis, from teachers to paraprofessionals to therapists. It’s so very satisfying to see him having another really good school year. My heart is happy that he seems to be looking forward to his second season of high school wiffleball.
But some of Nolan’s greatest accomplishments have come during the time in which he has participated in music therapy. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be able to convey how important that’s been to his development, or how grateful I am he has had the opportunity to be a part of it.