By Zubeida Mustafa
HASAN is a special child. He is autistic. Music inspires him and had it not been for his love of classical music which he shares with his grandfather, his mind would have continued to be caged. ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) prevents Hasan from connecting normally with the world around him because his communication skills have been impaired.
The magical effect of music on children has now been scientifically documented. Preschool teachers testify that sound — including language, poetry and music — positively helps a child’s mental and emotional development.
Dr Maria Montessori, who developed her method for early childhood learning from her research on children with disabilities, confirmed that young minds absorb a sense of order, sequencing, meter and rhythm from their environment which they internalise. She believed that each child developed from within at her own pace. For that it was essential to allow children autonomy in making choices and placing them in a mixed age environment.
Children with autism can benefit a great deal from music therapy.
Their innate capacity to repeat sounds and actions over and over again is a part of their learning process especially when something interests them. It helps them create a sense of order in their inner self and builds concentration. It occurred to me that this repetitive practice that comes so naturally to children is what musicians also need. They term it riyaaz.
And when children happen to have a disability of some kind, especially autism, music is found to be the best therapy for them. Hence it was a brilliant idea when Hasan’s grandfather, S.M. Shahid, a music aficionado, introduced the child to classical music. Having gone to great lengths to learn and practise at the feet of his ustad, the late Wilayat Ali Khan, Shahid understood the magic of the Muse.
Initially, he let Hasan absorb music naturally — so to say, the Montessori way. The environment was flooded with surs and taals with Hasan virtually living in it. The impact of this move on Hasan was dramatic. Music became his form of expression and communication with the people with whom he shared this love.
According to Hasan’s grandfather, our classical music captures the most subtle and sublime of sentiments. In Song in his Soul: Hasan my Music Soulmate S.M. Shahid elegantly records the story of Hasan’s struggle to cope with his disability and the positive role music has played in it.
On a typical day — and most days have to be typical because autistic children are greatly disturbed if their routine is changed — Hasan’s mornings begin with music and the evening closes the same way. What is remarkable about this extraordinary boy is that he recognises the various notes and can identify the work of various masters. Now he is learning to sing.
One can well ask, if music helps so much why don’t we use it as a therapy especially for individuals with autism who benefit most from it? Hasan is lucky to have a grandfather who dotes on him and caters to his need for music. But the fact is that both — music as well as people with mental disability — have been stigmatised in our society. We do not cherish either.
Gen Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation policy debarred music from public life. Now when music has made a comeback there are few practitioners left to promote the art. The tragedy of the mentally ill is that they are consigned to the fringes of society. With this mindset the concept of classical music as therapy for autistic children in a collective school environment finds few takers. It is considered outlandish to suggest that music’s healing properties can help people with autism lead a fulfilling a life.
The general stigma attached to mental illness is reflected in public attitudes. When the book on Hasan was launched recently, professionals concerned with the education and training of special children were conspicuous by their absence at the ceremony. The book has not caught much public attention either.
As for those specialising in music, classical music is fast losing ground. Napa and music conferences notwithstanding, the decline in this genre has been phenomenal.
Societies that care have a different approach. There is the internationally renowned Orchestra of St John’s in England founded by its conductor John Lubbock. It performs for schools for autistic children as a social service. Lubbock’s son has autism and he knows how Mozart and Brahms can enchant such children. That is the need of the hour — reach out to autistic children by playing classical music through their schools. And we never know how many music savants would be born.
Hasan could be a model for specialists in early childhood education and teachers of special children. His grandfather says, “In the case of Hasan I am following the age-old tradition of guru-shishya parampara [tutelage from master to pupil] that is, teaching one student at a time with the student constantly emulating the teacher.”