Affinity Therapy and the Autism Spectrum
My work as a teaching artist has put me in some amazing and inspiring situations. I’ve had the opportunity to meet brilliant, motivated and committed people of all ages. One of my favorite students (although it’s probably more accurate to call him a collaborator at this point) is James. I met James after performing at his school. He told his mom about me and she reached out to me to inquire about lessons.
For two years, we’ve met regularly. At first we focused on beatboxing as a platform for interacting and sharing. James is extremely bright and on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He communicates clearly and, to be honest, most people probably wouldn’t notice James’ behavior as any different than any other boy his age. After spending some time with him, I observed his tendency to obsess over certain things. I discovered that this is common for those on the spectrum. They are known as rigid behaviors. Sometimes, James’ obsessions make it difficult for him to focus on what’s going on around him.
Over time, our sessions evolved towards addressing James’ rigid behaviors through music composition. At one point, James was fixated on the sound of air conditioners. So we composed “AC Squeaks.”
As our work together continues, I often wonder whether writing music about his fixations helps James or if, perhaps, they increase the degree of his obsession. It was with this question in mind that I had the opportunity to read Benedict Carey’s NY Times article entitled Inside “Inside the Mind of a Child With Autism.” Carey described a therapy dubbed “Affinity Therapy” in which children on the spectrum role play the very characters with whom they are obsessed (e.g. Thomas the Train) in an effort to introduce and reinforce the social skills children on the spectrum so often find challenging.
I was encouraged to discover that this form of therapy existed and is being tested in clinical trials. Personally I have begun to encourage James to compose freely, moving away from his fixations and working with him to play whatever he feels. Still, James’ unique mindset is always the guiding force in our sessions.
Check out more of James’ music on his Soundcloud page.