When My Daughter Saw the Music

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In 2008, my autistic daughter was five years old. Spoken language was, at best, extremely challenging for her. Back then, she communicated almost exclusively in borrowed words -- in scripts lifted from books and television shows and wedged into conversation in an attempt to convey what she was feeling. She had very little novel speech.

One morning, I found her lying on the hard wood floor in our hallway, staring up at the light fixture above her head. I followed her gaze to the ceiling, where I saw what had captivated her attention. She was enthralled by the intricate pattern of light and shadow feathering out from the chandelier and onto the ceiling. It was beautiful. And, despite having walked by it countless times before, I'd never really seen it. Not like this.

I sat down next to my girl and asked her what she was looking at. Her answer would change the way I looked at light forever.

"I see the music," she said.

When we first suspected that Brooke was experiencing seizures, we went to see a neurologist at Children's Hospital of Boston. He was old and his ideas about autism were older. Within thirty seconds of entering the room, it was clear that the last thing he'd read about autism was Leo Kanner's original paper in 1943. Despite having just met her, the doctor rattled on about the savant-like splinter skills that he was sure that she had and that would, he said with all the confidence of someone who had no idea what he was talking about, compensate for all of her challenges.

We left. And I was livid.

My daughter is not, as far as we can tell, a prodigy. She did not come out of the womb playing the violin nor did she begin composing concertos at the age of six. At ten, she is not on what appears to be a path to musical mastery. She doesn't paint breathtaking landscapes nor choreograph elaborate ballets. She is not Derek Paravicini.

If we'd bought into the Autistics as Rain Man paradigm, we'd have long-since moved on from each of the arts after failing to find the "right" one and perhaps now we'd be onto exposing her to card counting or astronomy in our desperate search for the area in which her overwhelming natural expertise would serve as a panacea for all that ailed her.

And had we done that -- were we doing that -- we'd not only have done her a grave disservice, but we, as a family, would have missed out on so, so much along the way.

Would we be giddy with delight if she could make us a fortune counting cards? I suppose. But that's not who she is. -- Jess Wilson

My daughter loves to sing. In a chorus, she comes alive, thriving on the coveted sense of community that she finds there, one that can be so elusive in her every-day life.

In dance, she finds a way to express herself and her moods -- the silly, the serious, the melancholy, the heartbreakingly beautiful.

With paper and markers, she gives life to entire worlds that dwell in her imagination. She draws characters dressed as other characters, fashions elaborate plays combining the stars of all of her favorite shows, creates one giant cast, coming together to entertain us all.

In her creative movement class, she finds engagement, community and joy.

She sees music in light.

My daughter's experience of the world is different from that of most of us. She interacts with it differently, senses and processes and responds to it differently.

And so it is with music and movement and visual art. Each in its own way has created a portal for her -- offered her an alternative language through which she can express what she feels and what she sees and who she is. Each has, in the most miraculous of ways, facilitated the thing that she so desperately seeks with us and we with her -- connection.

So would it be neat if my kid could write a concerto or perform at Carnegie Hall? Sure. Would we be giddy with delight if she could make us a fortune counting cards? I suppose. But that's not who she is. Nor is it who she has to be.

Our children don't have to display musical genius to forever change the way that we hear it. They don't have to create museum-worthy art to make art-worthy art. They don't have to choreograph like Balanchine to make us understand that dance is language.

Autistics don't have to be prodigies to find value in their every-day skills and to use those skills to compensate for their challenges.

They don't have to be savants to live lives that matter and that make the world a better place for all of us.

They just need to have the chance to try.

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