When an autistic child enjoys performing

Making music with Malcolm

My 14-year-old son, Malcolm, enjoys being onstage much more than I do, so I create as many opportunities for him to indulge his love of the spotlight as I can. Without my efforts, his chances would be few. There aren’t a lot of people clamoring to put an autistic kid in a show.

The author with her son, Malcolm.

Malcolm’s PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder — Not Otherwise Specified) means he has trouble creating sentences and spends a lot of time reciting parts of videos and TV shows. He also tends to stim by holding his right hand near his face, making a shape that looks sort of like a square, laughing inexplicably, and squealing when he’s happy. That said, he can be extremely focused for long periods of time (especially when he’s playing video games). He is a talented artist who excels at activities requiring visual discernment and memory, a smart, easygoing kid with a great sense of humor who is very friendly and likes a good hug. He’s also more coordinated than I am (admittedly, a fairly low bar, but many children on the autism spectrum struggle with such things).

My son sang throughout summer camp for years (subverting the stated aim of improving his social skills), which led me to honor his request to sing in the elementary school chorus. He sang one of the pieces so much that I let him sing it in our church, for which I’m the music director, shocking the parishioners, many of whom had never heard him speak. He started drumming lessons after I learned of his skills playing Rock Band. He started taking voice lessons with his sister’s teacher, who discovered that he mastered songs very quickly with a good sense of pitch, a flutey tone, and, for a time, the ability to reliably vocalize to a high C. I taught him some piano after his music therapist told me that he could accompany himself with simple chords on tunes like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Rockin’ Robin.” He mastered every scale more easily than a lot of my other students; we’re on a hiatus, though, until I find him music he wants to play. Seems the pushback that led my daughter to the guitar has trickled down.

Despite his musical endeavors and the fact that he loves to dance, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to put him in a stage production if he hadn’t pointed to his sister, who was in the cast of a musical, and said, “Onstage Malcolm.”

“I’ll make it happen,” I told him, not sure how to follow through. As I said, he can be very focused, but not predictably, and when he’s lost in scripting, it can be very hard to stop. But he did well in his teacher’s studio voice recital and never missed an entrance performing in our church cabarets and coffeehouses. And besides, the social skills camps were so unsuccessful that I figured it couldn’t hurt to try something new.

The full-day program he tried two summers ago wasn’t a good fit, but last summer’s musical theater camp worked out, more or less. Malcolm learned the songs and spoke his lines right on cue, doing all of the dances, particularly the ones where he was center stage and placed beside one of the young adults who acted as facilitators. But by the end of the hour-long final performance, he was staring into space and stimming.

A leap of faith

Which didn’t make my decision to have him audition for the middle school musical logical, but in a district where the high school productions are just this side of professional, I knew this would be his last chance. School House Rock seemed like a perfect choice, since Malcolm already knew all the songs. He did his a cappella audition, complete with appropriate gestures, and was thrilled to find out he’d been accepted into the musical by Ms. Stewart, who also directs him in the school choir. After each of the first few rehearsals, I asked how he was doing and was told things were going well. Most importantly, the other students embraced him, as they do in general, helping him to stay on task. When Ms. Stewart told me that they had decided to add him to another number without her suggesting it, giving him a mystery “starring role,” I got tears in my eyes.

All of the love and acceptance he was getting didn’t keep me from wondering, on the day of the show, if I’d made a mistake. What would he do under pressure? Would he get lost in his own head, wandering across the stage in a way that would distract from what the other kids were doing? He was only in three numbers, but I couldn’t help feeling nervous. The weekend before, I’d taken him to see his sister in Seussical, thinking that the familiar characters, action, singing, and brevity would keep him from talking to himself. Instead, he not only spoke loudly, but refused to move to the back of the auditorium, prompting angry stares from a woman seated across from us, particularly when he started shouting “No!” as I got up, hoping to lure him to a seat far away from everyone else. We spent the second half of the show in a corner in the last row. At the end, he yelled, “Bravo!” — he loves musicals, and it was an excellent production. But I wondered if he would ever be able to function in public according to society’s norms, which led to my attack of jitters.

Malcolm’s first number in School House Rock was “Conjunction Junction,” about halfway through the show. The whole thing was choreographed, including kick lines. Ms. Stewart had asked that he work on the dance at home, watching a DVD. My heart was pounding, but as I watched, I relaxed a bit. Malcolm was half a step behind, some of the time, but he did every move, nailing the kick line and the jazz hands at the end. He looked tentative when he was led front and center to be either Lewis or Clark during “Elbow Room” (the “starring role”), but followed along, enthusiastically acting happy, sad, frightened, and mad exactly on cue during “Interjections.” After the last performance, he posed for numerous pictures with other cast members (mainly girls). Nobody seemed to mind that what he did wasn’t perfect. And my son got to do something he loves with his peers.

So I’m back to thinking of ways for Malcolm to perform. He’s a drummer in the middle school jazz band, but I expect his opportunities to be fewer next year, in high school. Which is kind of a shame, because while Malcolm got a lot out of the experience, I suspect that the neurotypical people who were involved in the production did, too.

Our readers respond

Patricia Thompson

of atlanta, ga on March 24, 2014

Hooray for Malcolm! What a good reminder for all of us to pursue our dreams and do our best, whatever that might be.

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