Malva Freymuth Tarasewicz is an accomplished author and mother to Benjamin, a young adult with autism. Her book, Benjamin Breaking Barriers: Autism – A Journey of Hope, is compelling and full of great ideas. She has since started a blog of her own: www.BenjaminBreakingBarriers.com. I had the opportunity to interview her about her experiences with Benjamin. I hope you enjoy getting to know her; I know I did!
Q: Malva, what prompted you to write this book?
A: I’ve been Benjamin’s primary therapist throughout his life and, being a professional musician and educator, I’ve come up with many creative ways to bring forth Benjamin’s personality and strengths – while also working on his problem areas. Autism therapy is expensive, and parents can do so much to help their children at home. You don’t have to be an expert to be effective, and there’s always a need for fresh insight and inspiration.
My book reads like a novel, and I share the nuts and bolts of what I came up with to help Benjamin. Since we’ve been on this journey for nearly two decades, there’s a lot to share! Many books focus on the crucial early years, but I continue on from there into the problems, ideas, and solutions that have carried Benjamin through elementary, middle, and high school issues.
Since life is a work in progress, I’ve extended the book into a collaborative blog that includes essays by Benjamin. For example, he has expressed his current views on romantic relationships, and has written about music and how it helps him when things are difficult. The music essay, by the way, was picked up by Autism Speaks and was also featured in the Art of Autism awareness campaign this past spring.
Q: For you, the arts are key to enlivening the therapeutic process. Can you give an example?
A: Being a musician, I naturally gravitate to musical sounds and rhythms – music accesses something primal within us. Oliver Sacks, eminent brain researcher and psychologist observes, “Music occupies more areas of the brain than language does—humans are a musical species.” Anyone can clap a rhythm and sing; even a tone-deaf person can use a sing-songy voice that is clearly different from their ordinary speaking voice. And music will often get a response from someone with autism when a spoken directive will not. For example, when first encouraging Benjamin to give eye-contact at age two, I’d put him in a hammock and, while swinging him back and forth, I would sing. Then I’d stop in the middle of the song and Benjamin would inevitably glance up at me, wondering why the music had disappeared. To reward his eye-contact, I’d resume singing, and this gradually became a sort of game, a back-and-forth interaction. Getting that eye-contact was a big deal because Benjamin was so lost in the fog of autism – thus, music became a primary gateway to engagement. My book gives many examples of how to use music in day-to-day therapeutic engagement.
Q: Benjamin has exceptional public speaking skills, and you’ve mentioned his long-time involvement in theater. Can you recount the beginnings of this path?
A: First, let me say that theater, by its very nature, lends itself to being therapeutic: you get to practice lines and body language over and over again, and you learn to be part of a team as well, so you are working on social skills. But long before a child with autism might participate in drama, you can create little mini-plays that dovetail with your therapeutic goals. I did this a lot with Benjamin when he was little. For instance, I would take one of those four-line verses like, “Jack and Jill went up the hill…” I’d work it in all manner of ways. Using dolls/figurines, we’d practice play skills and reinforce comprehension. We’d act out the verse using props and costumes, working on speech issues and physical gestures. We’d draw pictures – thus addressing fine motor and visual/spacial skills. We’d sing the verse too, clapping, marching, or dancing along. Mother Goose rhymes are precious seed-material—you can do so much with them!
If you are interested in purchasing Malva’s book, you can find a copy on Amazon here.
Benjamin has given a TED talk titled Breaking Barriers of Autism: The Power of Kindness and Friendship. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r05BUkOfOk8