One of every 88 children in this country has some degree of autism – up 78% over the last ten years. It’s a puzzling psychological condition that makes it difficult to communicate, but it is possible to help these kids relate to the world around them. One Staunton couple has made some surprising discoveries in that vein.
Barry Kolman conducts the Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra – an exciting job that brings him great satisfaction. He also teaches music at Washington and Lee University, but of all the musicians he’s encountered, one gives him the greatest joy.
His 13-year-old daughter Manuella or “Mano” has struggled to fit in at her new school since arriving from Brazil two years ago. Mother Grace Kolman says Mano didn’t know English and she is autistic.
“One day she came home, and she was very upset, and she said, ‘I am tired of people making fun of the way I talk, the way I talk, the way I am.’”
Grace is, by trade, a youth counselor. She advised her daughter to ignore the bullies and focus on herself.
“We cannot change the bullies, but we can change ourself”
So when the middle school band teacher came to her elementary school to recruit young musicians, Mano stepped up to learn the clarinet – the instrument her father plays.
“I love my Daddy. He teaches me how to play almost every day.”
All new students must learn how to coax music from the clarinet – to master rhythm, tone and tempo. Mano found the business of half notes and full notes confusing, until she came up with her own way of recognizing the notes on paper.
And mastering music seems to have helped her deal with her emotions.
“Mano used to feel really bad about herself, but now that she’s in the band she feels, ‘Well, I’m part of a team.’ She comes with the report card, saying: ‘Look, Mom. Are you proud of me? I have an A in band, so this really built up her self esteem, and her sense that she can do something meaningful. She can do something artistic and beautiful. So I definitely see many changes in her behavior.”
Barry Kolman has kept a journal of his lessons with Mano on his website – MaestroKolman.com -- a source of encouragement for other music teachers and for parents of other autistic kids. He and Grace plan to publish a journal article on music education and autism – and they hope others can learn the lessons he and his wife have learned from Mano.
“It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to look difference. It doesn’t mean you’re not cool. It doesn’t mean you’re weird. It just means you’re different. A band consists of probably 7-10 different types of instruments, and if they can produce perfect harmony, why can’t people?"