Discovering my autistic son’s musical talent

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In the third part of her frank account of her son’s autism, a mother tells of the discovery of his exceptional musical talent 

It was the year 2000, and I was hurrying around the local supermarket with my almost two-year-old toddler, Callum, strapped firmly into his buggy. I was rushing because Callum usually spent most of his time screaming, grabbing at the items on the shelves, kicking out, and, if I dared to get too close to him, lashing out. Many a time, I had registered the horror on other people’s faces and heard their whispered mumblings.

I would feel so ashamed and embarrassed; it seemed that I had got “that child” – the one I never thought I would have – and here I was with a screaming, raging toddler. Despite Callum’s verbal ability, I seemed unable to communicate effectively with him and he was a complete puzzle to me. But this was before his diagnoses, so I had no real understanding of autism and, therefore, no idea of what ailed Callum. I simply didn’t realise that noisy, crowded areas were a huge sensory problem for him.

By now, I’d learned to “shop minimal” and confine my toddler to his buggy. I had learned that in a shopping trolley he was at the perfect height to lash out, not just at me but at other shoppers. He could also snatch items off the shelves, drop them on the floor, bite into them or, worse still, throw them at other shoppers when they stared. There were even occasions when I’d been stopped by the store detectives. Callum could also tear at my hands while I pushed the trolley, and he was a veritable escape artist. Prior to learning to “shop minimally”, I would put him into the trolley with a baby harness. This was for his own safety, but I also thought that it would teach him that he had to sit and learn to behave himself like the other toddlers around us. I dreaded shopping, and so did Callum.

One day, as I made my entrance into the supermarket, Callum tensed, arching his body from the buggy, and he began to emit the familiar low growl that would usually presage his screaming. However, as we approached the music section, much to my surprise, Callum suddenly joined in with the music that was playing, belting out the words “We will, we will rock you!” at the top of his voice. But what was even more astonishing was that between the words he was making sounds that were shockingly like real drum sounds. Once again, my face reddened with embarrassment as other shoppers stared at us. This might be better than screaming, I thought, but his voice was so loud and the drum sounds were so incredibly real that it seemed impossible for anyone, let alone a toddler, to be making them.

From that day on, Callum made repeated requests for a drum kit. But I had experience of my older son, and children I had fostered and adopted, whom I had furnished with guitars and an array of other musical instruments, only to see their interest quickly wane. So, I ignored Callum’s requests, assuming that his interest would pass, particularly as he was so young.

Callum was what I thought of as a somewhat unusual child, who rarely played with toys in an ordinary way. Instead, he tended to be fascinated by spinning objects and would often play with a kitchen whisk, even rummaging through other people’s kitchen drawers looking for one when we visited their houses. He was also fascinated by any sort of ball he could spin, with throwing things, and by water and fire. When he was two he flooded my bathroom; at three, he set fire to my mother’s mail in the middle of her coffee table. I just put it down to him never being still and constantly up to something.

One day, shortly after his third birthday and as Christmas approached, I left Callum with my mum so that I could shop in peace. When I returned, my mum explained how she had been astounded by Callum, as for the first time in his life she had seen him sitting perfectly still and quiet in front of the  TV. He was watching the film The Snowman, and my mother maintained that she felt certain it was the music, singing and dancing that had kept him so motionless and entranced.

When Callum was four years old, I noticed him once again sitting perfectly still and mesmerised watching orchestral music on TV. I changed channel to a children’s programme, but Callum began screaming, so I immediately changed back again. Afterwards Callum repeatedly requested a violin, and again I put it down to a fad that would pass. However, Callum’s quiet, still moments were few and far between and a pattern began to emerge; the common factor seemed to be music.

At age four, Callum was still requesting drums, so I took him for a trial lesson at a busy youth club. However, Callum picked up the sticks only to stare mutely beyond the instructor. We were there for only five minutes before the instructor decided that Callum was simply too young for the drums, so we left. Upon leaving, I asked Callum why he had been so rude and hadn’t spoken to the instructor, only to be met with a silence that I could not understand.

By the age of six, Callum was experiencing severe educational difficulties, and our lives seemed to be filled with a never ending round of professional appointments. During one such visit, whilst I ran through his history with an occupational therapist (OT), Callum began playing a glockenspiel. “Have you noticed”, the OT exclaimed, “his timing is perfect! Does he play anything?”
“No”, I replied, “but he wants to play the drums”.
“You should certainly think about it”, she said.

Shortly afterwards, I bought Callum a toy drum set, consisting of three drums, and, much to my surprise, he immediately sat down and played with them for two hours solid. Eventually, I had to intervene to put him to bed. It had been suggested by school staff that Callum had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but now I thought to myself smugly, “No, it can’t be true; they’re all wrong. How could he sit for two hours to play like that if he had ADHD?”

A few weeks later, I had to take Callum on a dreaded supermarket visit to buy him shoes. Outside Asda was a lorry, complete with a stage, guitar, keyboard and drum kit. Suddenly, Callum bolted towards the lorry, and I set off  in hot pursuit, not knowing what he might do. Callum was running towards the stage and there was music blaring out from large speakers, but Callum managed to ignore this as he quickly sat behind the drum kit and hammered out the music to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.

A man standing nearby exclaimed “Oh my God, that’s amazing; you must put him in the talent competition!” Another man came running over to me, thrusting his card from a performing arts college into  my hand as he said “You must bring him to us! That’s amazing; don’t loose this card. Bring him for lessons!”  By now, Callum was playing something else. I had no idea what, but it was definitely rhythmical and sounded effective.

Shoppers had begun to stop and stare, gasping at this tiny little boy behind a full size drum kit, and, as I looked up at Callum’s face, I was astonished to notice that he wasn’t looking at the drums but directly at the shoppers. As I went to get him down from the lorry he merely looked at me and asked “Why didn’t they throw money at me? I wanted money.”

I took the card home and looked at it from time to time, but Callum was such a difficult child that I put the idea to the back of my mind. He messed around at home on his three toy drums and seemed happy enough with that. However, on his seventh birthday my mum bought him a full size drum kit, stating “I think he has an ability that could be developed, and I’m not going to ignore it. I’ll help pay for his lessons too.”

By now, Callum had numerous diagnoses, which I briefly explained to his instructor before his first lesson at the performing arts college. I thought it best to give some explanation of Callum’s odd social behaviour, so that he would not meet with the rejection he had previously experienced at football and gymnastic clubs. But I need not have worried. Callum sat down and played a Prodigy track and other pieces of music which he had apparently copied from the radio, TV programmes or computer games.  “Wow” stated the tutor quite simply. “This doesn’t make sense”, he said, shaking his head in disbelief, “How can he play like this?” The tutor told me he had never met a child like Callum before, who can commit complex pieces to memory and play them with ease. He has told Callum that he will become one of the greatest drummers ever!

Today, Callum drums on the school filing cabinets, radiators and desks. When lying down, he drums against the wall with his feet and taps out rhythms on the floor with his hands. It seems a bit surreal when such a young boy plays 1960’s music, such as “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” by the Walker Brothers and “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris. Indeed, having seen a DVD of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham playing the “Moby Dick” drum solo, he is currently obsessed with emulating parts of that from memory, amidst demands for more drum equipment.

Occasionally, he still plays the simple drum rhythm that started it all: “We Will Rock You” by Queen. So thank you Queen for inspiring him, and thank you mum for recognising a talent that could so easily have gone ignored.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.

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