Two things everyone learns quickly about Amaya: she is very social, and she loves to sing.
She seeks out interaction with staff and her peers all day long. And wherever Amaya goes, there is song! Her musical tastes are eclectic. Nineties music, like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, and the classics Lean on Me
and Somewhere Over The Rainbow
(which she performed in the school show last year after being coached by Music Teacher Erik James). According to Amaya’s mother, Ann, her repertoire also runs to rap and hip hop. “The staff at school has definitely leveraged Amaya’s desire for interaction and her love of music to help focus and motivate her.”
Each of us is motivated by different things. The same is true for the individuals we serve. Teaching communication and social skills, which are core deficits of autism, can be challenging and time-intensive. Identifying the things that a person most enjoys — and really wants to work for — helps build their core skills, makes them happy, and increases the likelihood of future success.
For Amaya, music is her motivator and reinforcement. It’s her reward when she finishes her work or tasks, and during potentially difficult transition times. Singing is also a great and socially acceptable way for her to seek out attention.
Amaya enrolled at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the age of 14. Her teacher Samantha remembers, “When she first arrived, Amaya’s aggressive behaviors were frequent and fairly intense.”
But the seven years since then have been good ones for Amaya. They haven’t always been easy, but she has made strong and steady progress. “Amaya can still have her moments,” Sam observes, “but now those behaviors are pretty few and far between.”
“Sometimes Amaya just gets stuck,” says Sam. “Given her love of music, staff began seeing opportunities to engage with her using fun, singsong prompts.” Now those prompts are part of her daily routine, and move her easily from one task to another. For instance, Amaya and Sam work together when it’s time for Amaya to make her oatmeal. Sam will start: First we get out the oatmeal... then we go to the kitchen... then we open the oatmeal... pour it in the bowl... “and Amaya will join in and sing along and off we go.”
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When Amaya was 18, she transitioned to a May residence. Although it was tremendously difficult for her parents, Amaya seemed ready for it. Her sister had left for college some years earlier and Amaya had grown restless at home. “I don’t think there was enough excitement and stimulation for her,” recalls Ann. Her father George adds, “We were worried about how Amaya would handle the transition, but she settled in easily and took to it quite well.” Utilizing music as part of her behavior support plan in the residence created consistency across settings for her.
“Amaya has learned, much better than we ever thought she would, how to be in close quarters with other people in the house and riding in the van,” George explains. “There are still sporadic episodes of a hair pull here or a grab there, but by and large it was thrilling for us to step into the house and see her snuggled between two people on the sofa — not something she could do easily before. She’s come a long way.”
This coming spring Amaya turns 22, which means two big transitions: moving to a new group residence and adult day program. Ann and George are making plans and anticipating what’s next for Amaya with less trepidation now. “The goal is to make sure she’s happy and surrounded by a supportive, caring staff,” says Ann. “Then she can have those positive interactions with people she loves.”
Music will help her do that. It makes her happy. “And,” adds George, “when Amaya is happy, she makes everyone around her happy.”
Samantha agrees. “I can be having a hard day, but then Amaya comes in and she’s singing True Colors— and suddenly I feel great!”