I have an 11-year-old nephew on the autism spectrum. I've been lucky enough to be his therapist at home and at school these past nine years. Watching him navigate his daily life has been the most impactful experience in my life to date. He is the strongest and most open-hearted person I know.
One of the greatest things his parents ever did for Leo was to bring our RDI (Relationship development Integration) consultant, Lisa Palasti to school. I had been my nephew's aide in the classroom for years at that point, but much of our time together was instructional and instrumental, as opposed to dynamic.
We were stuck.
One of the key things Lisa taught us was how to create regulatory activities that bred regulatory patterns. Any time my nephew needed to leave the classroom, we no longer looked at it as a break, but as an opportunity to get his system turned back on. The goal was to create something together that engaged him physiologically, so he would be regulated enough to re-enter the classroom.
I tried many activities that Lisa suggested, but they never felt right for me. I was so afraid of "getting it wrong" or "doing what she wanted" that I was not regulated myself!
I thought: What do I feel competent doing that might be the right framework for a regulation exercise?
For my sister, it was cooking with my nephew. They shared many breakthroughs by working incrementally to create family meals.
Music has always been my thing. (I was a professional musical theatre performer before getting injured and training to be my nephew's therapist in 2001). So we went to the music room.
There was a lot of trial and error in the dark, dank music room located in the bellows of the school. My tendency has always been to overcompensate, so I really had to sit back and see if my nephew would meet me half way.
The easiest way for me to do this was to promise myself that I would speak as little as possible and let the drum take over as my main form of communication.
Drumming is an amazing conduit for communication because it's more in the body than in the head.
We pulled out a large djembe from the cupboard of instruments. We sat facing each other and drummed with our hands, at 60 beats per minute.
Guttural sounds started to form from the both us. My nephew is a natural leader; as soon as he feels competent and safe, he rises to the occasion:
"I'm a cow-ow-ow ... "
"I'm a cow-ow-ow ... "
I started to follow his lead and together, we shaped this rhythmic seed into a full-blown chant:
I eat grass and I moo all day,
I'm a cow,
I'm a cow.
I am white and I have black spots,
I'm a cow,
Then he would moo, and I would have to imitate his variations. Other times, I would be "the mooer" and he had to imitate me.
The level of connection between us was staggering; I couldn't believe how close I felt to him in that moment, with something as simple as a steady drum beat between us.
This continued through many, many sessions, and depending how regulated we were, we could add variation.
On a day that was rough, when my nephew needed predictability, we stuck to the original chant. On other days, we went way off on creative tangents, speaking in gibberish, playing the drum with our elbows and even graduating to other instruments in different parts of the music room. That was a big deal; in and amongst these non-verbal decisions, we were doing a dance of trust with one another.
We were co-conspiring, co-creating, and co-experiencing, and it caused a physiological change in both of us to prepare for whatever came next that day on the classroom agenda.
Soon, my nephew took "I'm A Cow" out of the music room and out to recess with his friends. In the capable and purely creative hearts of third graders, it took on a life of its own.
Two years later, this one little chant has morphed unrecognizably into secret handshakes and sports cheers that my nephew takes with him to school assemblies and throughout the halls of the school.
I can't even understand what he and his friends are saying anymore, and I couldn't be happier.