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  • Kirk

Sweet music to my eyes and ears

Nolan got to enjoy a bit of normalcy Monday afternoon by completing his first music therapy session in four months. I documented it on my phone with the photograph you see, and I even typed a few notes for posterity.

Nolan sat in the chair across from the music therapist without protesting. He tapped both feet and rocked in time with the “Hello Song” that she begins each session with. He asked for and played the chimes when she sang a song about the wind. He touched the “hello” icon on his iPad, so she played and sang The Beatles’ song “Hello Goodbye” on her ukulele for him. He told her “no” on his iPad that he did not want to play the drum, but he said “yes” to playing the keyboard. He played said keyboard – white keys only, Nolan – while she strummed and sang Billy Joel’s song “Piano Man.” He went inside the building twice – a new-to-him building, as the business had moved to a new location since his last session in March – to pee.

All right, so maybe I’m treating a 25-minute music therapy session a little like Nolan’s first Halloween in 2006 (I’m biased, but I think he looked freakin’ amazing as the Winnie The Pooh Hunny Pot), or the beautiful painting of a tree in autumn he did in sixth grade – with help and no doubt a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth – that hangs in our living room (one of the few highlights of Nolan’s three years in middle school, in my opinion). Is it a major life milestone? No. But it is a small triumph over four months of no school as he knows it, no outside services – zilch.

And for one brief moment, I could raise my middle finger and drop an expletive at the demon virus that has caused all this disruption.

We tried resuming music therapy services last Monday, but it ended with Nolan sitting still for all of 20 seconds before he got up and dragged me around the building a couple times and ultimately back to my car, where he sat in the backseat and pulled my hand toward the seatbelt when his music therapist approached us and offered to continue the session in the parking lot. I wondered on the drive home that day if we should just wait and try again when the pandemic subsides. I’m glad I didn’t make a hasty decision.

Nolan really enjoys music -- be it on the radio, YouTube, or live -- and I’m thrilled he has a method through which it can benefit him.

Music therapy has been the one constant for Nolan since his first session in the summer of 2014. Even when he was struggling in school, or when we were forced out an outside service due to a change in state regulations or his challenging behaviors, we always could count on our 45-minute sessions every Monday at 4 p.m. Like everything with Nolan, some days were great and some were a complete dumpster fire. But Cindy and I have always believed it’s been money well spent, be it funding via the county in which we live or on our own Benjamins. Thankfully it’s the former now that Nolan no longer receives Autism-related therapy services. Buying him a little happiness ain’t cheap.

As much as I wish we had the next rock and roll superstar in our family, or at least someone who eventually might earn a few extra bucks and have fun jamming with a bar band on weekends, that isn’t the endgame as far as Nolan’s music therapy goals are concerned. He works on following directions, communicating on his iPad, and regulating his body through music. Want to play along on a song, Nolan? Touch the piano keys or strum the guitar when you’re prompted. Want to play a certain instrument? Go to the music therapy folder on your iPad and touch the correct icon. Are you upset? Hit this drum.

Save for two stints on maternity leave, Nolan has had the same music therapist for the last six years, and she’s the perfect fit for him. She has a sister with special needs, and she has this uncanny ability to maintain a very calm demeanor and get Nolan back on track even when he’s going berserk. She’s nice, but tough. Nolan doesn’t always want to do what she tells him, but he has sought out her picture on his iPad and touched it on the non-therapy days. She understood that neither option the facility had to offer when it reopened in April after a brief shutdown – teletherapy or having clients stand behind Plexiglas during in-person sessions – was viable for Nolan, and she said he would be welcomed back when circumstances allowed.

She called me in June and told me she wanted to try transitioning Nolan back to therapy in mid-July. Weather-permitting, the sessions would have to be held outside in a tent due to an uptick of COVID-19 cases in our county. And the music therapist decided after the aborted first session last week to temporarily cut Nolan’s sessions from 45 to 30 minutes. Cindy and I knew there was no guarantee the new format would work, but we were eager to try. Nolan showed Monday that it had been awhile since he’d used the music therapy folder, and he was a little rusty. But the therapist was smiling by the time Nolan and I walked to my car. I was too.

What happens from here is hard to predict. We live in the upper Midwest and autumn is rapidly approaching, meaning we have a limited number of nice weather days where sessions can be held outside. The number of coronavirus cases in our county could dictate if any sessions can be held at all. There is no way in hell Nolan will ever wear a mask, so the owner of the music therapy business will have to decide if she wants to accommodate him when sessions have to be held in the building. And there’s always the possibility Nolan’s services once again will have to be paused indefinitely.

But everything came together Monday afternoon, and I think Nolan appreciated having a brief moment of the routine he had known for so long. I’m glad I got to be there to capture that moment and share some much-needed happiness in our lives.

FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE: The music therapy organization typically holds a spring recital for its clients. The pandemic forced the cancellation of this year's recital, but watch Nolan perform at the 2019 recital:

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