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Thinking in Songs

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I am more commonly than ever before met with accurate empathy in popular culture, often to the point of tears. Programming on NBC in particular deals with neurodiversity: Max and Hank in Parenthood, Abed et. al. in Community, and Will Graham in Hannibal. David Finch was all over NPR a couple years ago offering advice and humor about partnering across neurological differences. Asperger’s is cool.

April is being celebrated as Autism Acceptance Month. In previous years, I have joked about Autism Self-Awareness Month, but I think this is better. The autism community has so many different voices. Temple Grandin wrote “Thinking in Pictures”; Daniel Tammett describes “Thinking in Numbers.”

I brought forth the best of my self-awareness a couple years ago in an online dating profile. I proclaimed two key messages that described my thinking and my outlook. First, I shared that “I think in songs.” Second, I wrote that “Miserable Genius is an Oxymoron.”

I am incredibly grateful to my autistic predecessors who harnessed fire, catalogued the stars, perfected arrows, and invented computers.

Some have even brought their rigorous gaze towards the workings of the human soul (including Needs Calculus) and the mechanisms of communication that enhance connection.

(So, for what it’s worth, my dating profile worked.)

I am deeply committed to every person feeling confident in who they are, and I see this self-acceptance as the key to inoculate against misery. In my clinical work, teenagers with a dose of homophobia have internalized my chants “There is nothing wrong with being gay”, and for balance, “There is nothing wrong with being straight.” When being gay is attributed to inanimate objects, I object “Sexuality has nothing to do with pencils.”

The way my brain makes connections helps me with my therapeutic work. I see a conversation space, and how people add words at different times. I move them around, looking for new poetry with the puzzle pieces of their words. In this way, I can sometimes find meaning that has slipped through the cracks.

Autism, for me and for at least some others that I have checked with, is a different way of sorting information and participating in the social world. Contrary to popular belief, in many ways autism has nothing to do with empathy.

I listen to a song over and over again to receive its message, both the lyrical and the emotional. I have empathic connection with music, but sometimes it takes me a little more time to soak it in. Repetition gives me that extra time to connect with emotions.

To clarify, I do not have any super gifts or savant skills with music. I have friends to testify to this, and I was only ever allowed to sing once. I have utilized music as a tool to improve my life. The evidence, my masterpiece, is then increased self-connection and joy.

Whether I am channeling emotional wisdom, right-brained pattern recognition, or making the unconscious conscious, I know what song to listen to in any given moment.

My Beloved and I completed the mix CD that was played at our wedding reception in April of 2014. Each song reinforces an emotional memory, a signpost that guides my heart and my thinking. I thank Naoki Higashida for introducing me to the concept of signposts in his book “The Reason I Jump.”

I hope that my sharing during Autism Acceptance Month contributes to a celebration of autism, and the many different ways that neurodiversity shows up. I know I am just one voice, often listening to just one song, but I still hope to share some beauty and meaning.

Who are your Autistic heroes? Do you have a quirk you want to amplify or harness, or a way of thinking you want to set free?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Anita Schnee March 31, 2014, 10:27 am

    Autistic hero: Temple Grandin.
    Music hero: Talking Timbuctu
    Hero in spring dedication to union: You and your beloved! Congratulations.

  • byamtich April 1, 2014, 3:58 am

    Thanks Anita!!! I’m going to check out Talking Timbuctu.

    My music (and Aspie) hero is David Byrne. I wept both times I saw him, super crafted and intentional. And, he is really good at sharing the stage, which shows confidence.

    • Anne Dunlevie April 11, 2014, 4:33 am

      Talking Timbuktu is an album that Ry Cooder made in collaboration with Ali Farka Toure. It is one of my “life soundtracks”, too. I love it. I am currently playing another disc by Ali Farka Toure “In the Heart of the Moon” in the classroom where I teach 2 year olds. The effect on their play and interactions is amazing. They are calm and focused and less frenetic than when we play “traditional children’s music.” 🙂

      My heroes: my three sons. My youngest has Asperger’s and is doing well as a freshman in college now. Driving to school as a child and through high school he always kept the same discs in and played favorite tracks nearly without variation some for a semester and others for the full school year. As a 4th grader: Andrea Bocelli “Sentimento”; as a 9th grader–very dark days–R.E.M. especially “Everybody Hurts” and “Man in the Moon” and “Night Swimming.” Later, Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” album (with bonus tracks), The Clash “Best of…” I could tell his mood by what he chose to play in the 6 disc player……. Now he’s driving. I miss that musical connection.

      • byamtich April 13, 2014, 11:05 pm

        Hi Anne,

        Thanks for the link based on Anita’s idea. I could really see why kids would enjoy that more than typical little-kid music!

        It sounds like your son has really good taste in music. I love the Talking Heads. I’m touched seeing how much music helped you connect with your son, and that a parent would care so much. To listen, for real.


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