Talk Like You: A Story About Connecting
I wasn't a music therapist when I had the chance to work with Karl (as usual, name has been changed). Not yet; I was still in college, doing a music therapy practicum under the supervision of a certified therapist.
My first time "meeting" Karl was an interesting experience; a staff member at the facility offered to introduce me to him, but it turned out that "introducing me" meant standing five feet away, watching Karl lean his forehead against the window and lick the glass. And, inexperienced and nervous, I had no idea where to go from there.
Reading his file was a little more informative than the staff had been. Karl had Down's Syndrome, Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, and some hormonal disorders besides. As a kid he'd been able to talk and read and write, but at age eight he'd started to lose those skills. As an adult, about my own age, he was functionally nonverbal, only repeating back what was said to him if he spoke at all. Most of the time he seemed to be in his own world, declining to engage with others or with any kind of new stimulus. But he loved Disney music; he would even repeat some of the words from the songs. And the vocational skills facility that hosted some practicums for the university hoped we could help him start to connect a little more to others.
Before I worked with him, I had the chance to observe my supervisor do a music therapy session with Karl-- and it was like meeting an entirely different person. He smiled, he laughed, he played the drums, he cheered, he even made eye contact. My supervisor told me that this was something that had happened after four months of working with a previous practicum student; now it was my turn.
I could probably talk for hours about that semester I spent working with Karl. It was a big growing time for both of us. I had so much to learn, so many mistakes to make. Since Karl was nonverbal, I had to learn how to speak his language. One tool I ended up using often was a poster; one side had pictures of characters related to some of Karl's favorite Disney songs; the other had pictures of all the instruments I'd brought. He'd point to tell me what song he wanted to do, what instruments he wanted to play.
And as we got to know each other better, we understood each other better too. We learned how to joke together, pointing to the wrong picture and laughing. Karl was willing to try new instruments with me because we learned to trust each other-- and one time, for just a few seconds, we held hands and danced together. I don't know if I can communicate what a big deal that was for Karl to accept that kind of touch. With my own experiences with sensory processing disorder, I felt deeply what a great sign of trust that was. And staff at the facility started to comment-- how Karl had started interacting more with the other clients, had started looking at and acknowledging staff members more often.
Karl had two favorite songs that we would do together. The first one, "I Wanna Be Like You" from the Jungle Book, I played enough times that I can still do the chords in my sleep. I thought a lot at a time about the new meaning those words took on when I sang them with him-- "I wanna be just like you. I wanna walk like you, talk like you too."
The second song was less about the song and more about the instrument. On an instinct, I decided to try bringing my violin to one of our sessions. I don't usually do that; my violin isn't as versatile as a guitar or a piano for use in music therapy, and it's also quite a bit more expensive and fragile. But when Karl picked out a slower song, "I Can Go The Distance" from the movie Hercules, I decided to pull my violin out and see how he responded.
As I said before, watching Karl with music was like seeing a different person; he opened up, he looked up, being part of the music kept him present and engaged in the world around him.
But playing a slow song on the violin got a completely different reaction. Karl stood up and walked a few feet away, then stood, drawn inward, silent and still. I wondered if I'd done something wrong, triggered something that made him close off again. But when I finished the song and lowered my bow, he looked up at me with a smile, and I knew that he'd been listening, really listening.
"You like the violin?" I asked him, not really expecting a response.
Karl smiled and said, "Yeah."
And so the violin came out every week for the rest of the semester, usually at Karl's request. And that became part of our language too.
Saying goodbye to a client when it's time to end services is always hard, but it's a little harder with nonverbal clients-- because it's more difficult to tell whether or not they're actually understanding that this is a final goodbye. It's an abstract concept to try to explain with clipart velcroed to a posterboard, but I didn't think Karl understood when I tried to explain with words. What does "end of the semester" mean to someone who is working on relearning words like "carrot" and "cat"?
So I stopped trying to get him to understand my language, and tried to figure out how to tell him in his own instead.
In the end, I wrote him a song on the violin. A simple melody that tried to capture what words never really can; that I was grateful to have known him, that I would miss him, that I hoped the next practicum student to work with him would care about him as much as I did, that he had taught me as much about music therapy as any of my professors in school. A tall order for any language to communicate.
But Karl looked me right in the eyes, just for a moment-- then put one hand on the bow so that he was playing the violin too. And I knew he was telling me, in his own way, that he understood.