April is Autism Awareness Month, an initiative designed to promote acceptance and inclusion for those with autism. According to the Autism Speaks organization, autism spectrum disorder “refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” BHMA has several students on the autism spectrum, and they are all distinctly themselves. This blog is the first of two that will feature individual students with autism and highlight the strides they have made while at BHMA.
“Piano, guitar, violin, voice, drums, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, and trombone,” Matt proudly rattles off. His memorized and oft-used list details the impressive number of instruments Matt plays. Originally from New Jersey, Matt, 27, and his family moved to the Pioneer Valley following a successful stint at BHMA’s Summer Program starting in 2006. He went on to participate in the Two-Year Certificate Program from 2010 to 2012, and then entered the LIVE Program. Since then he has become one of the central figures of BHMA and its programming.
From living in the dorms, to the men’s on-campus apartment, to the off-campus apartment, Matt has grown significantly at BHMA. Andy Anderson, Assistant Director of Music and Music Vocation, says of Matt, “Over the years that I have known him, Matt has learned to, and excelled in, demonstrating his instrumental flexibility in all walks of life. He is constantly working to better himself and to help those around him." Andy and Matt work together in LIVE Band, a space that allows Matt to demonstrate his musical prowess and spread the joy of music at various venues. And he gets paid for performing at gigs—for doing what he loves.
As he has added additional instruments to his repertoire, Matt has also learned how to be more independent. He goes to the bank, shops, cooks, and cleans at home. His apartment advisor Deidra Perez helps him along the way, with everything from Christmas lists to garbage. Matt also works in the kitchen at BHMA three times a week, and participates in a number of student group including Zumba, Yoga, Boltwood and Baking Club. With all that he does and has achieved, Matt embodies the interconnectedness between music and other forms of growth.
Speaking about things he wants others to know about him, Brian says, “I’m a good cheerleader and role model for people.” After a pause, he adds with a smile that he has done some beat boxing in the past as well. Purely himself, Brian, 23, is a local day student, and he came to BHMA after attending nearby Frontier Regional for high school. He is now set to graduate from our Two-Year Certificate Program in May, marking a milestone on his quest for independence and friendship.
Brian has had a very well-rounded experience at BHMA thus far. He takes both piano and voice lessons, and credits these experiences with instilling in him other useful competencies. As he explains, “piano lessons help me stay focused on the task at hand.” That ability can be directly applied to other situations, such as his new job of trash removal each Tuesday. Through his classes, Brian has also learned strategies to deal with stress and to respect boundaries. And while these skills are all very important, what matters a great deal to Brian is the concept of friendship. As he admits, being around friends and people his own age is one of the best parts of BHMA, and he truly wants to capitalize on that part of his college experience. Life Skills Teacher Danielle Kelly says, “Brian has worked very hard to learn how to talk to his peers and how to listen to them, and to be a kind friend." His efforts have provided him with the skills he needs to interact with his peers in meaningful ways.
Brian is very involved at BHMA, participating in Games Club, Boltwood, Self-Advocacy Club, and Special Olympics basketball, soccer, and swimming. He has a keen interest in sports, as evidenced by his commitment to reading the sports section in the local newspaper every day. Though Brian has flourished in his two years at BHMA, he still has other goals he would like to pursue, such as becoming more independent, increasing his use of public transportation, and gaining more friends. With Brian entering the LIVE Program, BHMA will get to witness his continuing growth. Brian's progress and focus on friendship demonstrates the power that individualizing one's path to independence has. And through it all, he is earnest and genuine in his drive to be a good person and friend.