Hit tunes;Special needs

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
The piano is the key to the remarkable achievement of aseverely autistic boy, finds Susannah Kirkman .

Matthew Donovan, aged 10, has just passed his first piano exam. There is nothing unusual in that, you might think. But what is remarkable is that Matthew was diagnosed as severely autistic at the age of two.

When he was three, his parents were told that he was unable to be educated and would probably be institutionalised by the time he was 10.

"When Matthew first started at the Forum School at age five, he had no speech," recalls his mother, Margaret Donovan. "He was totally unaware of his surroundings and he had no idea who I was. He was still in nappies and never slept for more than an hour at a time."

Matthew's parents began to see improvements in his behaviour after a few weeks at the independent boarding school for primary-age autistic children in Devon. "I had my first-ever kiss from Matthew when we went to collect him for the holidays that first time," his mother recalls.

But the big breakthrough came shortly after he began piano lessons at the age of six, when he suddenly started to talk. Matthew can now communicate his needs and his feelings - a huge step forward for someone who used to be locked in his own world.

"We are amazed and very proud of him. It is unbelievable how well he has done and it's all down to the piano playing," Mrs Donovan says. "You can see his confidence and the sparkle in his eyes. He used to look lifeless, staring straight through you."

"Matthew loves an audience," his father, Gerry Donovan, says. "At a school Christmas concert, everyone started clapping and cheering after he played his solo, and I saw his little face peering round at us with a great beaming smile on it."

The staff at the Forum School believe that autistic children are like any other pupils in their need for praise and encouragement.

"Autistic children tend to have very low self-esteem because they've failed at everything," says headteacher Carol Yellop. "For us it's a question of finding what they're good at and building on that, whether it's music, horse-riding or gardening."

Mrs Yellop, who originally taught in mainstream primary schools, thinks that expectations of autistic children can be too low. "You have to make a decision: do you pat them on the head and make allowances for the autism, or do you say, 'There's the world - we will teach you how to fit into it'?" At the Forum School, most of the children can read simple texts and do some writing by the time they leave. They also learn important social skills such as sitting down to a shared meal.

"We believe the children can achieve and we have a fairly intrusive approach; we expect them to take part in lessons and activities," Mrs Yellop says.

In music lessons, for instance, all the pupils will join in, "coached" through the session by virtually one-to-one attention from teachers and support staff.

The children may feel anxious at first, and some punctuate their playing with the hand-flapping movements that are characteristic of severe autism.

By the end of the lesson, however, all of them will have played the percussion instruments. Some will also have had anindividual session at the piano with music teacher Mary Melbourne.

"After the first lesson I gave at the school, I had to rethink what I was doing," she says. "I can now imagine that it could be a frightening experience to be handed a strangely shaped object and be told to tap or hit it."

After introducing each child to the sight, sound and feel of percussion instruments, Mrs Melbourne encourages children to play along in time to the piano.

She has formed a percussion band that plays successfully at school concerts. Any pupil who shows particular talent, like Matthew, will receive short individual piano lessons with her.

Mrs Melbourne might start by asking pupils to play black notes or white notes in sequence, and then get them to copy simple three or five-note patterns.

"I noticed that Matthew was interested in what I was doing. He soon began to sing the notes back to me - it was the first sign of speech," she says.

After learning simple tunes such as "Cum Bi Yah", Matthew began to improvise, so she taught him a lot of triads to help him extend his range. He can now reproduce tunes he hears on the radio.

Matthew has a good sense of rhythm and plays with expression, using minor and major keys. Last autumn, Mrs Melbourne decided he was ready for his first exam, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music's preparatory examination for grade one.

As an exception to its usual rules, the board allowed the teacher to attend the exam with Matthew, so that she could interpret the examiner's requests to him, but the board warned her that it would expect him to attain the same standards as any other candidate.

To her delight, Matthew passed with flying colours. She is now preparing him for his grade one exam. For this, he has to learn to read music, so Mrs Melbourne has devised a scheme using colours to teach him the different notes.

Meanwhile, Matthew has made so much progress that researchers from the Maudsley Hospital in London have now been forced to leave him out of a study into the development of severely autistic children in which he was participating.

The main concern for his parents now is ensuring that his secondary school will help him to develop his musical talents. As his father says: "Matthew has got to be able to progress further, otherwise the past years will have been wasted."

The Forum School can be contacted on 01258 860295. It is part of theHesley Group, which also runsOAASIS, a helpline for the parentsand teachers of children with special educational needs, tel: 0891 633201 from April 21. Fax: 01590 622687

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