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Giving a Voice to Special Needs Kids Who Cannot Speak

November 2, 2021

Giving a Voice to Special Needs Kids Who Cannot Speak

Over the past 17 years, our program, Kid Pan Alley, worked with more than 40,000 children writing songs in schools throughout the country.  Those kids have written more than 2,700 songs, some of which were recorded by top entertainers such as Delbert McClinton, Sissy Spacek, Amy Grant, Kix Brooks, Suzy Bogguss and more.  One was even nominated for a Grammy.

Not long ago, we had the opportunity to reach another group of creative children—kids with autism who do not speak.  The week-long song writing program took place at Ridge Ruxton School in Baltimore.  It was an unusual residency—all of the children were profoundly impacted with multiple disabilities.

We knew that writing a song with kids that don’t speak would be a challenge.  It forced us to listen on a much deeper level. We knew the kids had a story to tell, but not always a way to tell it.

Our goal is always to capture hopes and dreams in song.  Each of the five songs we wrote with these students reflected their ideas and how they see the world.  Of course, the question is how to get meaningful, authentic participation in the songwriting process from kids without our normal method of communication—words. Fortunately, we had some previous experience with this, having done several other programs in similar special schools.

Some of the kids had communication devices.  They could tap a picture and it would speak the word.  A couple could type a bit and their device would say what they had typed.  Others could just squeeze your right hand for a “yes” and your left hand for a “no.”  Some had some basic sign language and with others you just had to look into their eyes and figure it out.

We partnered each child with a neurotypical child from one of the area’s schools.  We worked with the peers on how to interpret what their partners were trying to say.  They bonded, hugged, and developed a compassion unusual in children of that age.  It was beautiful to watch.

We worked with pictures. The staff had chosen themes for each class and we made small cards with pictures of words that related to those topics. The topics were friendship, emotions, nature, Romeo and Juliet (yes, the older kids were studying Romeo and Juliet), and graduation.

The children would select cards relating to the topic and we’d get started by writing a section using the words from those cards.  There was a yes/no vote for every idea. Gradually, a verse or chorus took shape.  One of the peers would read the first line.  We’d clap the rhythm. The peers would hold their friends’ hands and clap with them.

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Then another would read the line again, and with our hands, we’d show them the pitches for the line they had spoken by moving our hands up and down in the air.  When we speak, we are really singing to each other—we speak in rhythm and on pitch.  In song, we just amplify the arc of the spoken melody—perhaps going up a bit higher or lower, or stretching out a rhythm.

Finally, we’d ask someone to sing it.  Sometimes the melody came perfectly formed from one of the peers.  Other times, one of the children with autism would make a sound—a cry of excitement, a laugh, and we’d use that in the melody.

Line by line, we’d write more verses, a chorus, and even sometimes a bridge until the song was complete.  The Romeo and Juliet song was particularly challenging.  You can’t just say they met, fell in love, and died.  Shakespeare wrote a very complex story and characters like Montagues and Capulets just don’t sing very well.  But, eight verses later, we had our song.

At schools like this, the students start at age four and graduate in their early twenties. Two of them were graduating.  We wrote their song, “I Know You Must Be Sad to Leave,” with the Sign Language Chorus.  You can hear the song and see a video of the week at www.bit.ly/k-current.  It’s really moving.

At the end of the week we had two concerts—an afternoon for all 200 students at the school and an evening performance for their parents.  We wanted them to have meaningful participation in the performance. We programmed arpeggios into my iPad, and as they touched different places on the screen, my colleague on French Horn and myself on guitar would improvise with them.  They introduced the songs with their communication devices and they all came on stage for our “Best Friends” song at the end.

I looked over at the kids and saw the joy and excitement on their faces.  I’d look at their parents in the audience, many of whom were weeping, and I’d think just how lucky I am to be able to do this work—to give a voice to those who don’t have one.

This article was featured in Issue 53 – Working Toward The Future

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