"Live music became something to calm her, but more importantly, it lessened the distinction between her and others without learning disabilities."
My autistic sister is quiet and a little shy, but she loves a good tune. I’ve been an avid music lover all my life, attending gigs and spending obscene amounts of money on band merchandise. Live music concerts were something I had always enjoyed with my Dad; I went to my first concert in 2014, to see Laura Marling. I fell in love with live music and looked for any opportunity to go.
Later that year, Bastille announced they were playing the Cambridge Corn Exchange and I begged to go. My sister Emily overheard me and began to ask questions about concerts. She decided she wanted to go to see if she would enjoy it. My dad booked us tickets in the seating area reserved for those with disabilities, where it is less crowded and closer to the stage. Here, my sister’s love of live music began.
As many concert goers are aware, the queue outside of gig venues is always loud, full of smoke and people pre-drinking before the doors open. This environment is my sister’s worst nightmare. Luckily, those who have tickets in the area reserved for people with disabilities are allowed to enter the venue through a side entrance. It has wheelchair access but is also much quieter than the main entrance queue. Many people who have autism struggle with large groups of people at the best of times, so the separate entrance was key in making my sister feel welcome and excited for the event, rather than become overwhelmed and anxious.
Upon entering the venue, we were given special neon stickers to let the venue staff know we were allowed through the side doors into the reserved seating. Emily kept on telling me she felt like a VIP. There was a smile on her face the whole evening. The view of the stage was impeccable, and we were given free Bastille wristbands. The combination of the freebee and the kind staff meant Emily had found a love for music concerts.
After Bastille followed Paloma Faith, Tom Odell and Lonely The Brave. In the summer, my Dad and I convinced the whole family to come to the Cambridge Folk Festival with us. It is such a relaxed and welcoming environment. We felt at home as soon as we stepped through the door. Many of the acts at the festival handed out free merchandise, including CDs and badges. Emily loved sitting in brightly dyed tents, eating organic ice-cream, tapping her foot along to the beat of the music. Live music became something to calm her, but more importantly, it lessened the distinction between her and others without learning disabilities. She often tells me that seeing bands and hearing live music makes her feel ‘normal’. As her sister and carer, it is heartbreaking to hear how she recognises how she is different, and then assumes that this means she is disadvantaged. I am thankful to the music industry for helping my sister to come out of her shell and find confidence in herself.
Recently, I’ve come to realise that music has offered Emily more than just an appreciation for music. Being able to navigate festival grounds with me by her side helps her to navigate bustling city centres. Hearing music played through massive speakers helps her to remain calm when those around her at college are a little too noisy. Not only does the experience of attending a concert excite her and provide her with a thrill, but I've seen how her eyes light up when she talks to her peers and teachers about the gigs she's been to and the bands she has seen. It also provides her with topics of conversation and, more importantly, the confidence to talk about herself without being shy and anxious when she is speaking to others.
The Nurse Journal outlines how music can be used in therapy for children with autism. It speaks of how we can “use a song or instrument to support cognitive activity so that we can build self-awareness and improve relationships with others.” There are many elements within music that can help children and adults with autism. Importantly, the lyrics can help with communication. The Nurse Journal speaks of the positive impact music can have on communication, stating: “for children with autism, this could mean learning a new word from a song, or better understanding how to act in a social situation based on the messages that a song is expressing.” It is clear that music and live music is an enjoyable experience for many, but it is so important to recognise how attending concerts and singing along to your favourite songs can help development in children and adults with autism.
Chris Blake recently wrote an article for the National Autistic Society, explaining how there are "positive relational and behavioural responses from children with autism when exposed to live music." The entirety of the article questions why music isn’t recognised as having a significant positive impact on the behaviour and development of those with autism. I agree with his sentiments: why aren’t more people talking about the positive impact music can have on those with autism?
Going to music concerts and listening to live music gives my sister so much more than the experience on the night. Concerts have given her the confidence to talk about her experiences, her hobbies and herself with pride.
Words by Jessica Barrett.
17th July 2020.