Yesterday I was stuck in a loop. This topic of presuming competence vs the prodigy effect cuts so deeply. The word prodigy was uttered around me as a child when I was learning violin. I didn’t think much of it, I just wanted to play music with everyone. Whatever word was used to describe why I could learn music so fast did not reflect the fact that I did work hard. I practiced so much that my parents actually asked me to stop and go to bed. I would rather play violin than eat, sleep, or do anything else for that matter. My passion for music was the bulk of my progress.
As a teacher, I cannot ignore the fact that some students do have aptitudes that others don’t. I hesitate to say talent, because I do not think it is purely inborn. I believe aptitude is an intellectual cocktail comprised of exposure, passion, persistence, heredity, necessity, and privilege. I was fortunate enough to have overflow in all of the necessary areas and thus labels such as talented and prodigy were added. I am aware of the social constructs that label the science behind why we accel. But without the hard work, the other elements are quite useless.
I started teaching young, around age 14 or so, when I was asked to stay after school and help tutor classmates. I was thrilled to help my fellow orchestra members so that we could play more interesting music. I had an engaging way of teaching the material. This was because I had an intimate knowledge of what I was teaching purely from my involvement with music. I often could do what I was teaching and had usually experimented with several approaches before settling in on a technique. Because of my multi-dimensional analysis of every musical concept, I could teach it like it was simply a tour through my own living room.
As I barrel rolled into adulthood, any perception that I was a prodigy was diminished. What I could learn and how fast I learned it, or even how well I played it, was no longer important. My lack of official credentials redefined me. I was put aside by many because I did not have a degree in music, nor a seat in a professional orchestra. I could learn to play any instrument in minutes, but that was overshadowed by the fact I couldn’t recite theory on demand. More times than not, less skilled teachers would replace me simply because they had a college degree, and not necessarily in music.
Once the word Autism entered my vocabulary, this issue of not having a degree became a bigger problem. You see being an autistic prodigy made me a marvel as a child, but played no role in defining me as an adult. My excelled music abilities should have put me in a conservatory of music, but it did not. This is where the blurred line between aptitude and discipline is most evident. I wanted to explore music my own way; to change the system. My disobedience made me fall hard from favour as others deducted that teaching me the traditions of music and it’s theory was not possible. As a child I was a marvel. As a teen I was a disobedient youth destroying my future. As an adult, I am just a has-been of the music world.
This perception that causes professional execution of the unruly prodigy is not unique to the Autism world, but it does have a greater impact. Low self-esteem, hindered social interaction, and brain-body disconnect make the loss of a special interest as a career path catastrophic. Music was not merely some heightened skill inside me, it is my way of telling the doctor what is wrong. It is my way of calming the fears brought on by my misinterpretation of the world. Recognition of my music means the listener hears my story and if only for a very brief moment, connects with me at the deepest possible level. Being told my music was lesser because I couldn’t place it in the Neurotypical worlds box bound by rules created by the post-partum observation of those who became great before me, broke the lifeline that connected me to other humans beings. It was just another way of saying my voice didn’t matter because I didn’t perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at age 10 as that was the age I started to play. Apparently age 14 wasn’t good enough.
Enter you, Phoenix. Your excitement and need for expression made my body rock while I played. You and I could dance together, instead of fighting to operate in the same defined space. This was the place where we connected, in my mind, and made the music fill every cell of my body. It was uncouth, and many of the traditionalists of the music world found it offensive. Remember the man that held my shoulders and said I was better when I was still? You didn’t like the black dresses either, so my grandmother made me one I could tolerate. If only they would let us play in the orchestra in whatever was comfortable. I mean even Ellen DeGeneres wears sneakers with her suits,
The fact I learned it mostly by ear was unbelieveable. It remains so.
In Autism, it is truly an unwinnable scenario when the entire approach lacks a presumption of competence at it’s core. If we are seen as competent humans worth teaching only after we reveal some super power or prodigal skill, then we never have a chance to view life from a seat of accomplishment. And when we have a skill, it should not be yoked with this superhero complex of savants and prodigies. As soon as the flapping 10 year old becomes a flapping 20 year old, the word prodigy expires.
Prodigy or not, either way, we are always proving ourselves and measured by a ruler that has infinite parameters between each mark. After all, what better way is there for society to protect their intellectual hierarchy than to dismiss non-verbal genius?
No worries, Phoenix. I’ll never let them put out your flame. You shine brightest when you sway my body to the music. The only way to get them to open their minds, the only way to love louder, is to never end the dance,