Autism is a spectrum disorder. The most well-known indication is probably a difficulty with communication and social skills, but people diagnosed with ASD can present with a wide variety of symptoms of varying degrees. This is only one of the reasons that I can’t speak for everyone with this condition, but from my own personal experiences, I’ve come to believe that our brains simply work differently than most, rather than them being defective or deficient in any way. Granted, living with ASD can often be challenging, but it is not without its advantages as well.
Nowhere is this more evident for me than in how it helped me learn music and continue to learn and perform today. I achieved a nearly professional level of technical fluency on the flute early on, after only a few short years of practice. I think I was around 15 when I started believing it when people called me “talented”. But looking back, I now believe it had more to do with how I practiced and how my brain functioned than any innate musical gifts.
First, I chose the right instrument. When I first heard and saw the flute performed live, I was instantly captivated and wanted to play one myself. Had I been more neuro-typical, I might have been influenced by social expectations and chosen a more “gender appropriate” instrument. In my neighborhood, boys didn’t play flutes and black people were supposed to prefer gospel or soul to classical music. But none of that made any sense at all to me. I think that choosing an instrument (or any activity for that matter) for any other reason than you love it, diminishes your chances of being able to muster up the motivation and energy required to master it. Loving something is a powerful motivator. But neuro-typical people’s need to fit in and feel normal can sometimes blind them to their own unique callings.
Second, I was obsessed. I didn’t just love the flute; I could hardly stop thinking about it. I couldn’t listen to a song without imagining the melody on flute. I thought it had the most beautiful sound of any instrument on earth and was genuinely taken aback the first time someone disagreed. I couldn’t meet anyone without thinking about what they would look like playing flute. I idolized flutists, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but they literally looked physically more attractive to me than they did to other people. Obsessions are typical among people with ASD. But because I kept most of these feelings to myself, and music is seen as a viable contribution to society, I think most people viewed me as passionate or dedicated rather than obsessive.
Third, I loved to practice. For many, practice is boring because it’s repetitive. But I like repetition and routine. I could play the same scales for hours if I didn’t have to pace myself. I can’t explain it, but I think I just love how it makes my brain feel. It’s like turbo charged problem solving in real time, but at the same time, calming. I imagine that the same areas of my brain light up when I practice that kids’ do when they play video games. Moving the metronome up a notch is like advancing to the next level. Sometimes when I couldn’t practice physically, I’d use my imagination and memory to work things out in my head (often in vivid detail). To this day, there is nothing that I can think of that can engage my mind so completely for such long periods of time as practicing the flute. Teachers sometimes feel the need to make practicing “fun”. But when they took this approach with me, I found it distracting and annoying. Practicing by itself was fun. And the need to “make” it fun implied they thought it wasn’t.
Fourth, I have a naturally strong ability to focus, especially on detail. This is helpful because musical ability isn’t just one skill. It’s a combination of many, what I call, “micro-skills”. For instance, on a wind instrument, playing a single note can be broken down into at least three unrelated techniques– starting the note, sustaining it and ending it. In addition, there’s controlling the pitch and controlling the volume, etc. Everyone I know that has mastered the art of flute playing has put in long hours practicing each of these skills separately (as well as dozens more). The neuro-typical tendency is to focus on the big picture (practicing the music). But as they say, “God is in the details”.
Developing a solid technique early on gave me the freedom to explore artistry and expression and to enjoy performing. There are other characteristics typical among people with autism that I’m sure have helped me as well. But that’s not to say that someone needs to be high up on the autism spectrum to benefit from them. Neuro-typical people can learn and apply ASD behaviors as well as people with autism can learn and apply neuro-typical ones.
It’s just a little easier, I think, when it comes naturally.
This blog is about music, health, challenges, determination and personal and professional growth. I hope it is useful.
Copyright 2017 Michael Davis. All rights reserved.