The Keys To My Car: A Story About Being In The Moment
Paul (name has been changed) was a young man with autism that I had been working with for a few weeks. He loved music, and got excited every time I came-- often coming out to meet me when I pulled up in my car, and then following me out to my car to say 'Goodbye' at the end. Paul got so excited that it was actually a problem-- he couldn't regulate his body well enough to sit still for the sessions, and would spend most of our time together running in and out of the room. I learned very quickly that if I found something that caught Paul's attention that day, I'd better run with it while it lasted.
We worked a lot on social and language skills-- one of his favorite interventions we did together was to sing "Happy" by Will Ferrell in different voices (sad, angry, excited, etc), experimenting with what different feelings sounded like. Other times we worked on playing together on an electric keyboard-- helping him learn to tolerate sharing it with another person, and practice the social interactions that come with making music together.
One week, the moment I walked in, Paul grabbed my purse and pulled out my keys, then began to play with the keys. I did my best to redirect him-- but he was having none of it. All he wanted to do was play with my keys. He even asked "please", which for him was a pretty big deal.
(You'd be surprised how often this happens. I come in with bags of all kinds of fun and interesting instruments from all over the world-- and the client just wants to play with my keys.)
I could have dug my heels in and insisted on him giving me the keys back-- and sometimes that is the correct response when a kid is acting out. Learning to respect boundaries and other people's property is a legitimate music therapy goal. But, on the other hand, this child who struggled so hard with focusing on any task or sitting still for longer than a couple of minutes was completely engrossed with these keys-- I could fight it, or I could use it.
So I played a chord on the piano (D major-- thanks to my years in orchestra that key (ha!) is something of a comfort zone) and did my best to make up a song on the spot. About keys.
"There's the key to my car;
Without it, I can't go far.
And there's the key to my bike,
Without it I'll have to take a hike.
There's the key to the office,
I need it or I'll be in a mess.
There's the key to my apartment,
I need it so I can pay the rent."
And-- while Paul kept playing with the keys, he was clearly listening. When I paused, he sang back, "Key to my car!" --his way of asking me to sing it again.
So we ran with it.
In between repetitions of the chorus, I'd make up verses that had him doing things with the keys-- practicing prepositional phrases (keys up! keys down! keys in the box! keys out of the box!), following instructions, passing the keys back and forth with his mother, singing about emotions (I would be SAD if he didn't give the keys back, I would be HAPPY when I got the keys back), playing the keys as a percussion instrument...
In the end, we sang that song for 45 minutes. And Paul was completely focused and on task for the entire time. It ended up being one of our best sessions together.
There were, however, some unintended consequences.
Paul did give me back the keys before we sang our goodbye song. But, while I was packing all my instruments back up, he suddenly snatched the keys and ran out of the room.
His mother and I hurried to follow (myself somewhat impeded by a bag of percussion instruments that I hadn't even used that day, a guitar, and a large electric piano). I wasn't too worried-- Paul was (and is) a sweet and kind-natured boy.
I was more worried when I stepped out the front door to see Paul sitting in the drivers seat of my car, with the engine running, trying to turn on the radio.
We got to him before he could drive my car into a mailbox or something, but it was quite a moment.
The next week, we ended up singing 'The key to my car' again, at Paul's insistence-- but I immediately took the keys back and hid them.
At the end of the session, Paul came up to me with a smile. "Paul help Jennifer?" he asked. Impressed and charmed, I handed him my purse and one of the lighter bags I was carrying to help me carry out to my car. Paul put down the other bag and started searching my purse. After a moment, he asked me, "Jennifer keys?"
"Sorry, not today. I get to keep my keys."
With a look of disgust, Paul handed me back my purse then went to his room to play with his toys.
Needless to say, I have since become very careful about letting any of my clients touch my keys.