Autism Celebration 2012: Our Kids Can Do ANYTHING! by Kim Furnell

As a mom with a child on the autism spectrum, I’ve gotten used to hearing about the things that are challenging for my son.  He has many challenges.  Social situations, writing, and reading are just a few.  However as mothers, we have to realize that it’s our job to turn the challenges our children face into teachable moments that build their self-esteem and show them that even an elephant can be eaten, if you do it one bite at a time. 

When Ben, my son, was in 5th grade, I decided he needed to learn a musical instrument.  As a former band geek myself, I thought he should be in band, plus I knew it was a very social activity.  I talked it up.  I got excited and got him excited.  After working with the band director, my son chose the clarinet. 

He played, practiced, and took private lessons.  Learning to put the thing together took him a good couple of weeks. 

Every parent should experience the sheer delight of hearing a 10 year old learning to play an instrument.  The proverbial nails on a chalkboard feeling?  Not even close.  Remember all the big debates about water boarding the terrorist prisoners in the news?  I thought we should just lock them in a room with tapes of a beginner practicing around the clock and they’d be begging for mercy. 

I remember when I mentioned to his band director my desire for Ben to participate in the high school marching band.  For just an unprofessional millisecond, his look said it all.

“Are you high/stoned/insane?” 

See, our local high school takes marching band to a pretty high level.  They are one of the best bands in the state.  They go to regional competitions and regularly place in the top 3 bands.  Winning happens on a regular basis.  The kids involved spend over 250 hours from the end of July through the end of October practicing, and that’s not counting the individual work they do to have all the music memorized before they show up in July to summer band.  It also doesn’t count the Saturdays in October that are spent at the competitions.  I wanted Ben to have that social outlet, that instant network of friends from marching band. 

So, he prepared for 9th grade and high school.  I had already spoken with the band directors and prepped them.  He worked on memorizing his music over the summer.  The last Monday in July loomed like a roller coaster he was finally tall enough to ride.  I warned him, while keeping my comments mostly positive, of the challenges he would face.  Heat, sweat, pain, people yelling, mass chaos, etc.  After all, those of us who have been through summer band (or “band camp”) know it can put Scout Camp to shame.  It’s more like Boot Camp for musicians, complete with its own vocabulary, attitude, and drill sergeants (they’re called “Drum Majors”).  He had his water bottle, sunblock, ball cap and comfortable shoes.  I reminded him to drink, drink, drink, because this is Kansas, it’s July, and dehydration happens.  I was proud that he didn’t throw up even once. 

After 3 weeks of torture rehearsals, his band director asked to speak to Ben and I.  She complimented Ben on his attitude, work ethic, and playing ability.  However, he was struggling with marching.  After all, marching and playing an instrument is HARD. 

Since our band actually learns two shows, she proposed Ben march in the easier, more fun, halftime show that is performed for the students and spectators at football games, then play from the front sideline during the more serious competition show.  She expressed concern for his safety (apparently he had more than his fair share of “near misses” with flying flags and/or rifles), and the safety of the other students (he was also being trampled by kids who would run into him because they knew where they were going and he didn’t).  Marching in the “Rock Show” would help him learn the fundamentals of marching, while keeping him (and everyone else) safe. 

OK, sounds good, because I am a huge fan of emergency room avoidance. 

However, by the end of that first marching season, Ben realized he wanted more.  He wanted to march in the competition show.  He wanted to be on the FIELD when the announcer said “Blue Valley High School, you may take the field in competition.”  So, he worked.  He practiced with the incoming 8th graders in their marching clinics, something the other students didn’t have to do.  I marked off 5 yard lines in the back yard so he could work on his steps.  He went to all his sectional rehearsals and worked, worked, worked.  July loomed again, this time anticipated with a little more fear, because he WANTED to march this year.  He was nervous, because he knew what he wanted, but was afraid he couldn’t do it. 

3 more weeks of torture/rehearsal.  He drank his water, applied sunblock, sucked down Popsicles that the band moms brought, and marched, and marched, and marched. 

He ate, slept, marched and played.  I prayed and wondered what I would say if/when he didn’t make the competition show.  I honestly thought he had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it.  The last day of band camp arrived, and when I picked him up, he had a HUGE smile on his face.  “Mom, I’m in the competition show.” 

Later that evening, after the performance the kids put on for their parents to show us what they’ve accomplished in those 3 weeks of rehearsals, I found the band director and thanked her for putting Ben in the competition show.  She looked at me and said “He earned it.  I didn’t give it to him.  He earned it like every other kid out there.  He’s great.” 

Parents, let’s not be afraid to give our children these experiences. 

Yes, it’s hard to watch your child work twice as hard as everyone else to achieve the same results.  But to see the look on your kid’s face when he knows he’s accomplished something is worth all the heartache and tears.  Then when that first football game and competition comes—and even though there’s no crying in football—you can just let the tears flow and not apologize once for them.  You’ve earned them.    

What has your child or friend with autism done to step out of their comfort zone and learn something new? How has the experience helped him or her?

Would you like to comment?

Shannon said...

Loved reading this, Kim! What an awesome kid, and what an awesome mom.

Christine said...

Fantastic and amazing, Kim! You and Ben have fought long and hard and you deserve every good day and every proud mama moment. Well written, my friend. :)

Lo said...

Thanks for sharing about your son! Loved it. And I totally laughed about the music practice being used as a torture technique! New follower :)

Kelly Bryson said...

As a former band geek, I loved this post. And as a mother of an eleven year old learning cello (our elementary school only offers strings), I laughed. Did you know renting a cello is way more expensive than renting a violin? I could not do the violin. Cello always sounds beautiful, right? Hmmm, not neccessarily!

Good job letting your son have his battles.

Vcky13 said...

Thanks for the positive post! I need to hear other kids' success stories!

Danyelle Ferguson said...

My son with autism plays the cello - and there are definitely some interesting sounds that can come out of it! =)

He always surprises me though. He holds the cello away from his body & balances it on his knee. So running the bow across the strings is a completely different angle than the other kids. But he doesn't like the vibrations on his body, so that's his "quirky" way of playing. Amazingly enough, he stays on track with all the other kids. The important part is he enjoys it.

Getting our kids to stretch out of their comfort zone can be scary - but most of the time, well worth the effort. =)

Thank you for your wonderful post, Kim!