The Autistic Child and The Song

for blog - ian singingMore than once, I have seen a programme on television about an autistic child and the parents have said quite categorically “He’s non-verbal”, and I have heard that child in the background, singing.

Not just a tuneless wailing. Singing a song I know – and singing it recognizably, words and all.

When I hear this, I am the person hopping up and down on the sofa, pointing wildly at the television. “There’s your ‘in’,” I’m shouting. “The child is showing you a way to communicate!”

Okay, I’ll try to be calm about this and break it down.

What if an autistic child hears language as a long string of sound, instead of separate words?  Not just in a song, but generally?

How intimidating must it be for a child if he can’t hear where one word ends, and the next begins? And how can he possibly hope to learn them individually?

I realised a long time ago that Ian didn’t hear words separately, he heard them joined together. Slurred.  Occasionally generally – remember, we had been teaching Ian individual words since he was very young, so he had a head start – but most definitely in songs.  When I realised this, I wrote out his favourite song, word by word, neatly and clearly on several pieces of A4 paper. Then I sang the song with him, at the same time pointing to each individual word. For Ian, it was a kind of minor epiphany. The long strings of sound he thought he heard became individual words he recognised.  The others became words he could learn.

His love of music became a way to teach him, and the songs he knew became lessons in themselves.

So the next time you hear a ‘non-verbal’ autistic child singing, stop, and listen.

Do you know that song? And if you do, what can you do with that knowledge?

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The above photograph of Ian singing appears, along with many others, in my book “From the Inside – raising, teaching, loving an autistic child“, available in paperback and eBook from the non-fiction section of http://www.emuink.ie.

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