Jeannie is a lady in her seventies with profound and multiple learning difficulties, and we suspect that she is on the autistic spectrum. She can seem ‘isolated’, remaining on the periphery of the group, and can be tricky to get ‘close to’ emotionally as she communicates very discreetly and minimally, mainly with delicate finger movements, and gentle clicks of her throat in varying rhythms. Jeannie indicates interest by eye contact or gesturing to an item, and shows lack of interest by turning away or ignoring the offering.
Music can offer a unique response to someone’s vocalisations or movements – even from someone with no musical knowledge whatsoever! Jeannie is part of a group session: she is usually very quiet and keeps herself to herself, sometimes offering the gentle, rhythmical vocalisations she often makes… they’re so quiet you have to lean in close to catch them. On noticing her vocalisations I brought out the guitar from the selection of sensory resources we had with us that day and I gently plucked the guitar strings in response to a her gentle vocalisations – just one string at a time but plucked in time with her sounds and changing subtly the notes played. Jeannie picked up her rhythm, beginning to vocalise faster and leaning forwards closer to me, and to the guitar. Unfortunately after a few minutes I hit a few ‘bum’ notes, and she leaned away from me, breaking our eye contact… but we had enough of a connection for her to give me a second chance and after a short rest she leaned forwards again, vocalising gently. Our interaction continued for many minutes more and when she leaned away again it seemed to be with a sense of being listened to and of control. Jeannie again gave me prolonged eye-contact instead of the fleeting eye-contact we can often receive and she burst into a huge grin, which we don’t often see, so I knew we had really formed a meaningful connection and communicative exchange.
Later in the session, after I had been singing with another member of the group who likes to count, we incorporated his words into a familiar rhyme; Jeannie again leaned forwards, initiating an interaction, looking me straight in the eye and maintaining the eye contact. She began to make her gentle vocalisations again, but increasing the volume this time so her voice was louder, almost at a conversational level. This was incredible as this lady’s voice is normally so quiet you have to lean in really close to hear her! The sense of connection this interaction had facilitated was intense, and for this lady to actively seek out further meaningful connections and interactions was something we had not experienced on such a scale previously. It really felt like we had ‘hit the mark’ with this particular interaction.
By Anne Laney, Us in a Bus Interaction Practitioner