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    Posted April 1, 2013 by
    Staunton, Virginia
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Living with autism: Out in public

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    Mano’s Story: Girl With Autism Fights Bullying with Music

    "Mom, today everybody at the table left when I came with my lunch. I am so tired of people making fun of the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I am…" complains a tearful Emmanuela, (Mano). Her school day typically begins with the stares, the finger pointing and the sneers from her classmates who see her as someone who is not very "cool."

    Mano sits by herself at lunch, lonely and isolated — even ostracized by her contemporaries. She lives in two different worlds: one dictated by her condition and one where the rest of us live. Our daughter, Mano, has autism spectrum disorder; she is high functioning, which is not always the case with ASD kids. Some don’t speak a word. Imagine yourself in a foreign, often hostile place of learning — a place where bullying is part of your normal day and where "inclusion" is preached — but for you, it is an exclusionary world.

    Though Mano is given whatever special services are available, it is not enough. She has in the past acted out her immense frustrations, especially on the weekends with sudden outbursts of anger; she bemoans the fact that she has no friends and she is painfully aware that kids and sometimes teachers treat her differently. It is a heck of a way to go through school. What does the future hold for this beautiful, sweet girl who can be alternately 13 years old (her actual age) or a little innocent child of eight (her own private world)?

    There is no cure, no magic pill for autism. Mano is aware of the hurdles she needs to overcome to achieve success. We don’t pretend that her path is easy, and if sometimes we need to explain things to her in a very simple and basic way by using cartoon characters, drawing or fairy tales, so be it! Sometimes, we need to step inside her fantasy world.

    Bullying is a constant in Mano’s life, but what has saved her from snapping or diving into depression is music. We have taken a two-fold creative approach to fight this pervasive bullying.

    First, in order to build self-esteem and resilience, we encourage Mano to be proud of who she is. Second, to help Mano with socialization, we have encouraged her to be part of the middle school band. Playing music can soothe the pain of isolation and provide a safe space where she is accepted.

    We work together as a team. My wife is a counselor, and I am a clarinetist. The fact that learning about music (playing an instrument or singing in a choir) engages almost all areas of the brain influenced our decision to use it to regulate Mano's emotions and help her with socialization and daily coping. Decades of studies comparing children with ASD with typically developing children have shown music to be the common language they all can learn to speak. Our family experience with Mano has proven this correct.

    During a presentation that we made at the Virginia Counselors Association Conference last November, we explained, "We wanted to teach Mano clarinet, starting from the very beginning. Learning the clarinet is a challenge to any sixth grader; just making a recognizable sound is an accomplishment. It requires the student to do several things at the same time, something that is difficult for ASD children. The learning ideal is to introduce one new concept at a time and then repeat that one concept over and over. For the music teacher, it is a whole new way of teaching. At times, we weren’t sure who was learning more, the Clarinet Teacher or Mano. Now, she is proud to be a contributing member of the band and she finally 'belongs.' She feels good about herself; she is 'included.'

    Music is Mano’s life line. This is total "inclusion." What happened to Mano because of music is far reaching. School administrators take note! We see our daughter as one with a bright and positive future. The bullies may still be there but so is the band.

    Barry and Grace Kolman

    Barry Kolman is professor of music at Washington and Lee University. He is the author of the book, "The Language of Music Revealed."

    Grace Kolman is a counselor and PhD. candidate in counseling and supervision at James Madison University.

    music autism bullying, clarinet
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