Thursday, November 2, 2017

Finding the music in everyone

By Louise Kinross

The other day I posted a call for story ideas on the BLOOM Facebook page.

Karen Bojti wrote: “Another ‘out of the box’ person I have discovered is Laura Nadine. You can Google her. She’s a professional violinist, a wandering minstrel and music teacher. She is also a woman on the autism spectrum. She is teaching Charlie to play the violin.”

I hopped over to Enlightened Audio, which is Laura’s website, and this sentence jumped out at me: “I teach music to all humans.”

It sounds like common sense, but it’s revolutionary. Many children with disabilities struggle to find a music program they can attend, let alone flourish in.

Laura lives in Buffalo, but she travels to Toronto on weekends to teach here, so she came to visit me.

Laura primarily teaches string instruments, but she also teaches piano and guitar at a beginner level.

“The key ingredient to my teaching approach is presuming competence,” Laura says. “I truly believe every student can learn. We just may need to adjust the method or the way in which the student connects with me. I want to make it clear that I’m not a music therapist. I’m teaching children to acquire the skill of playing the instrument, and when they’re finished, these students are playing core material like everyone else.”

Laura says about 80 per cent of her students have disabilities. Most have autism, but she’s also worked with children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and ADHD.

“One of the things I think is flawed in understanding disability is that we think disability is static: when you’re assigned a certain IQ, that’s what it is. We don’t take into consideration the error of the measurement systems, and that kids are fluid. They can grow and learn more. I’ve seen this time and time again with autistic children going from being non-verbal to communicating with a letter board. We’ve got testing models that assume all humans fit into a static model. We really don’t understand the grey area of the spectrum, and the ability to make new [neural] connections to compensate for places where there might be flaws.”

When working with a new student, Laura encourages them to make a sound with the violin. “Their bow hold might not be perfect, but making a sound is rewarding,” she says. “I let the child take the lead. If the child is afraid to touch the instrument, we unpack it and look at it, and I talk about how it only makes sound when the child wants it to make sound.”

For a child with autism who has trouble getting her body to do what her brain wants, she'll take the child’s arm and help her bow up and down.

For some children with autism, touching the violin to their shoulder and resting a chin on it “can feel like lightning shocks going through the body,” Laura says. “The goal is to get it on their shoulder as soon as possible, so they can train their own body to tolerate the input. However, if I have to hold the violin first to get to that step, then I do that. I would face the student and say ‘I know your brain understands what you need to do, but your body needs time to learn.’”

The good news is that “the body and brain have an amazing ability to increase tolerance to input, so people on the spectrum can learn to be a little less sensitive through training and understanding. The more times we do something, the less intense those shocks will feel, until they can independently hold the instrument.”

Laura struggled in school growing up because her autism wasn’t diagnosed. “The hardest thing for me is my nervous system,” she says. “I went to public school in the states, and they had no windows in the classroom and fluorescent, vibrating lights. It was hard to be in this building with all this input. There were bells ringing and kids chewing on pencils. I could even hear the clocks tick and the water fountain pump turn on. I had meltdowns that weren’t physical—where I would shut down and couldn’t speak. It manifested in night terrors. My teachers thought I was sick. I dropped out of high school in Grade 10 and did correspondence school.”

Laura says that during her struggles at school, “music was my island of increased ability.” Within four years she was playing at a professional level, and was asked to tutor other music students after school.

Laura says she may have synesthesia, where “one sense gets confused with another. In my case, my vision has a sound. What I see creates music in my head. When I was in music class at school, I would pick up snippets of sounds throughout the day, then organize them into a song to play on my violin. It was an outlet for stress. I called these songs shadow songs, and one of the first I wrote was called All Alone. I wrote it at age 14. I call them shadow songs because everything has a shadow, but for me, everything has a song.”

It wasn’t until Laura was 27 that she learned she had autism. “My second child Jacob was doing some odd things that reminded me of myself,” she recalls. “He had to have things organized in a very special way, and he wasn’t speaking fully until right before he went to kindergarten. I took him to the doctor and he gave us the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Then, while talking to me about Jacob, he handed me some literature about adults on the spectrum. I guess I was obvious.”

Laura says getting the diagnosis was freeing. “It was like someone wiped the fog off my vision. The diagnosis is a toolbox, not a label. It told me what set of tools I needed to adapt to succeed in the world, not just survive. Nobody wants to just survive. People want to have a quality of life and I knew I wanted to be more.”

She went to college to study psychology and education. “With a diagnosis, I was able to ask for help with note-takers and extended time on tests, and I went from being a failing student to having a high GPA.” Laura says she wanted to understand better how her mind worked. “I felt many of the interventions for autism were obedience-based, not development-based, and I wanted to understand more so I could do more.”

Laura says what she’s learned from her students is that “there’s always a way, even when it feels like we’re pressed up against a wall and not making any progress. I’ll wait for the student to shine a light on something else that ends up working for us. That’s part of being student-led. I’m not trying to fix the student. I’m teaching them to navigate through their disability.”

Laura receives lots of positive feedback from her students and their teachers. “One girl who uses a letter board told me that music changed her life, and was a new way for her to communicate her inner thoughts.”

Laura hopes to move to Toronto in the New Year and become a Canadian citizen. “When I came to Toronto, it was the first time ever that I felt like I was at home. The community here is so warm and embraces unique perspectives. I can’t wait to be a part of that society on a daily basis.”

Laura has a book: I am Snamuh: My Journey with Autism and the Power it Gave Me. She also has a few signed copies for anyone interested.