And Autism gave me the courage to pursue success.
From a very early age, I showed an interest in music. My mother tells the story of walking me through town at age three, when I pointed to a violin and declared “I want to play that.” Not even knowing what the instrument was called, I was drawn to the violin.
At the time, there were no music teachers in our area willing to take a three year old violin student, so my mother placed me in dance classes with my sister at the Atlanta Dance Works in Stone Mountain, Ga. I learned quickly, at least when it came to tap dance. Something about the musical rhythm of the taps, and the vibrations traveling through my legs, calmed me and excited me simultaneously. By age 8 I was know as Little Laura, and the 40-year-old-midget; terms of affection that described my tiny build and my adult like speech patterns. I was happy.
I loved dance, but I still could not shake my desire to learn the violin. After a years of searching, a few months before my 10th birthday, I was introduced to my violin teacher Ms. Stefanie Graef. Within six months of starting lessons, I had won my first competition. I could not put the instrument down, often playing into the early morning hours, stopping only when my mother forced me to bed. It was clear I was obsessed with the violin.
Once middle school began, I found myself way ahead of the the other students. Not only had I played for a year before starting middle school, but at such a fast learning pace, the gap continued to grow. One afternoon, I decided to stay after school and help my orchestra teacher tutor some students from class. I had no idea what was beginning here, but I was very glad to help. After all, the faster they learned, the sooner I would have people with whom I could play music. My after school help session quickly grew, and by the time I hit high school, I was being paid to teach my peers.
I never thought I wanted to go into teaching. In fact, had you asked me as a youth where I thought I was going, I would have answered, “Carnegie Hall.” I wanted to perform non-stop. I loved the warmth of the stage lights, the rush of air from the crowds applause, and the delight in knowing that I was brining joy to listeners, even if only for a moment. My desire to help my peers was part of my obsession with spreading the love of music. They wanted to play, and I wanted to help.
Not diagnosed with autism until age 27, I found my teen years to be riddled with complications regarding relationships with my peers, emotional understanding of my world, and a total inability to throttle my opinion. Unable to cope, I would withdraw from high school the end of sophomore year, and spend the better part of the next decade in a deep depression.
Years later, after my children were born, I received a call from Ms. Stefanie, the violin teacher and mentor I had taken lessons from for almost 9 years. She was ill and needed a substitute teacher. I was still deeply obsessed with music, but post-autism diagnosis it was now referred to as my “special interest.” Despite my continued desire, depression had won and I had not played regularly in 3 years. I had not taught in 5.
Substitute teaching for my mentor reignited my passion. I had forgotten how much I loved the excitement students felt when a new technique was learned, or a musical phrase finally made sense. Teaching students to play, no matter the age, was a pure exchange of musical love. Music had given me something to live for through depression, and now teaching music was going to pull me out of depression. My obsession was saving my life.
Once the momentum of teaching started again, I found myself standing in front of the middle school orchestra, where I had once been as a student. School life was miserable for me, but the orchestra room was an oasis. I was driven by the desire to help make the orchestra room an oasis for other students who were lost and miserable at school, as I was.
The teacher there, Jeff, had an unwavering confidence in my abilities to help him with his orchestra class. We would team up, playing on each other’s strengths, helping the kids love music. He was also supportive of my autism, allowing me to advocate to the class by sharing my diagnosis. The students were allowed, in a supportive setting, to learn about autism, helping an entire generation of students remove the stigmas of disability.
I was struggling again with my personal life. A single mother now, I was barely keeping things together as I toiled to make less than $10,000 a year. Reluctantly accepting support from family and friends, I found it difficult to build my teaching profession to be lucrative. I found myself fighting of depression, and faced with many naysayers who felt I should just give up music and work bagging groceries. I was infuriated by the insinuation that as an autistic adult, I would only be able to earn wages at minimum wage.
By the time the students entered high school, I was teaching a few days a week, performing only in small settings, and usually for students. I had strayed far off the path to Carnegie Hall, a dream I held for so long. One evening, while conducting a winter concert at the high school, I was hit hard with a wonderful feeling. As they played with energy and passion for the audience, we shared a love for music, phrase by phrase.
My obsession didn’t stop there. As part of the documentary being made about my music, The Shadow Listener, we decided to put on a concert. The orchestra consisted of students, with only a few adults to help support them. Given only one week, and one rehearsal, the students learned music I had composed starting at age 14, as part of a musical called How Sweet the Moonlight Sleeps. I finally had the opportunity to hear the music that had played in my mind for over 20 years, played live. I was ecstatic!
During the performance of the final piece, Story Eyes, I was overwhelmed with delight and excitement. Somewhere during the third verse, a wall of sound passed through me. The air pushed through the room by the movement of the players was decorated with the layers of music I had composed, dancing to the ears of the audience by the rhythm of my baton.
In that exact moment I realized then that the students were my Carnegie Hall.
Today, I teach over 40 private students a week to play violin, viola, and cello. Forty percent of my students have some sort of disability ranging from hearing impairments to ADHD to Autism. Working hard to expand my studio to a worldwide online audience, I began Enlightened Audio Academy. One day, I want children all over the world to have access to a free music education, and further spread the love of music.
So, the next time you look at an autistic individual, look deeper than the stigma or the definition society places on us. Presume competence, help us to harness the power autism gives so we can overcome our weaknesses, and never try to put out our inner flame. That flame is the pilot light that turns our obsession into our success.