Reaching my autistic son through music

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 3.44.43 AM.pngBecause he does not speak, and most likely never will, my son Dominic and I communicate through music.

It began as an early act of desperation, as we drove home from the hospital, two exhausted parents and one round, red-faced baby, crying inconsolably in his car seat. I cushioned my belly full of staples and leaned forward to turn up the car radio, helpless and desperate to calm my 2-day-old’s sobs. Within the first few bars of music from the oldies station, my son closed his eyes and slept a placid sleep. It was the most peaceful I had seen him since he had emerged from my womb. And it was the first time since his birth that I, too, could close my eyes.

As the first few weeks of Dominic’s life unfolded, he became an expert at crying. As morning stretched into afternoon, he was impossible to satiate. His sobs weaved into the soft strains of the evening and later, they followed me unshakably, as I paced his bedroom, cradling his small shape in the night-time darkness. So I took comfort under a blanket of music, covering the house at all times, to soften the blows of his screams and to keep me from losing my mind. It quickly seemed that the music was the only way to calm us both. And the more the music seemed to calm us, the more I played it.

At first, it was Chopin, because his piano nocturnes took me from the nursery, into 19th century Paris and far away from the painful feedings. But as Dominic was awake more during the day, I experimented. We tried pop and old school R&B; we moved on to soundtracks. Often my husband would leave the baby and me for work in the morning, the strains of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” trailing him out the door and he would return, 10 hours later, to the imposing beat of the “Imperial Death March” echoing on the walls.

Shhh, I would whisper to my husband, holding up my hand, as he walked into our apartment. The baby really likes this part.

There was a certain absurdity in trying to cater to the musical tastes of a 4-month-old, but I was sleep-deprived, desperate and hormonal. And I quickly learned that my son Dominic was not an average baby. I lived in a constant state of mothering crisis management, anything that would give me a respite from the screaming was something I was willing to try. And as long as the music worked, I would use it. I soon learned that his favorite song was “Danny Boy,” the Bing Crosby version. Within the first few opening notes, my son would always turn and face me, his eyes wide open and a dreamy look on his small face. I had no idea where Dominic went, inside himself, when I played this song for him, but he went somewhere wonderful. I was his mother, and even though we could not communicate with words, I knew the music was his escape from a very confusing world.

As the months passed, I began to understand there was something very wrong with my boy. Even as his excessive crying dissipated, he missed milestones at a concerning rate.  There were no first smiles, no laughing, not one word. While he would go silent and starry-eyed at the first strains of Danny Boy, Dominic would still not say “mama” or shake his head to say “no.” Months turned to years, soundtracks turned to old jazz standards, and my fears turned to heavy, tangible concerns. The first time the doctor used the word autism I actually felt a flood of relief. Now that I had a name for what was wrong, I could find a way to make it better.

Except it didn’t get better. While the crying lessened as he grew into childhood, the frustration grew too, for us both. My son was frustrated that he couldn’t tell me what he wanted, that I did not just know what he needed without words. And I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a way to make him understand just how hard I was trying to understand him. 

So we relied on the music to speak to one another. In the supermarket, as he scrunched up his eyes and arched his back at the glaring, bright lights and the noise of the other people, I would lean in and put my mouth to his ear. “Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.” And as though it quieted the pain in his head, he would hold my face in his sticky hands and listen to me sing. While strangers watched and wondered, I pushed the cart defiantly and sang that song until my basket was full and my throat was dry.

He is 12 now, my silent boy. He doesn’t cry much anymore, nor does he say, “Mom, I need $10 for the movies” like other boys his age. He never said “mom” at all —because of his autism, he can’t speak very much. But it doesn’t bother me much, anymore, really. It is what it is. And I know how to calm him, I know what gives Dominic joy.

At night, I will hear the faint strains of Chopin slipping out from under his bedroom door and I will think of holding his small body, staring up at the moon in the middle of one of those first sleepless nights. I will play his favorite soundtrack in the car as we go speeding down the expressway, and take pleasure in the way he loves to roll the window down and let the wind whip through our hair.

Sometimes, when I am feeling nostalgic and missing a time in my life that I never thought I would miss, I will load up “Danny Boy” on the stereo. And wherever he is in the house, Dominic will find me. He will come and listen, with the same wide eyes and the same dreamy look I remember. And then, he always goes to that somewhere, far off place inside himself. “Oh, Danny Boy, The pipes, the pipes are calling. From glen to glen and down the mountainside. The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling. It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.”

I do not know if he understands that this song was part of the earliest language we spoke, as a mother and a child. Nor do I know where he goes, when he loses himself in the music.

I just know that as long as we share it, as long as we have the music between us, he will always take a part of me with him.

And I know I want to go where Dominic goes, whenever the music plays.

Nicole Jankowski is a mom of four kids and two awesome stepkids, a divorcee and a writer. Read about her experiences with autism, addiction, and awesomeness at or on Facebook and Twitter.


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