Today being World Mental Health Day, it was a nice coincidence to find myself reflecting on a recent mentoring success. This was with an Asperger’s sufferer who was feeling under pressure. The keys to this breakthrough appear to have been space and respect. And both were applied by the student himself. Let me explain.
Some friends asked me, a couple of years ago, if I could help their son with his music making. For the purposes of this article, we’ll call him Tom. Tom had been studying music at school and doing well. However, he has a form of Asperger’s that means he has a tendency to shut off if he feels under too much pressure. Tom’s teacher had spotted his potential and tried to provide plenty of encouragement. Unfortunately, this had the effect of making him withdraw and lose confidence in his abilities. So much so, Tom was in danger of giving up music altogether.
So, Tom’s parents asked if there might be anything I could do to help. They were most keen for him to rediscover his creativity and were not overly concerned about academic achievement. He knew and liked my music, so they thought I would be someone he could trust and respect. Whilst they live at some distance from me, I said I would see what I could do remotely.
We decided that the best approach would be for this to be a flexible arrangement. Rather than keeping to fixed times or days, Tom and I would have an ongoing dialogue. Tom could share his ideas and thoughts with me and I would provide feedback. I could also give him a window into my working life; sharing thoughts on things that motivate and inspire me as they arise.
Over the following months, we sent emails back and forth. Tom would sometimes send a YouTube clip of him working on a piano piece or singing with his guitar. I would comment on his work; pointing out composers that may appeal to his style and making gentle suggestions about where to take things next. I also let Tom know about music to which I had been listening, radio programs that may interest him; gigs I had played or attended, and so on.
As someone to whom ‘teaching’ does not come very naturally, this situation felt very comfortable and real. We were just two people with a shared interest in music, swapping thoughts and ideas. The fact that I have experience of creating and performing for a living was largely irrelevant. But it was helpful in showing Tom his own potential. Once he could see that we are essentially no different from one another, this gave him licence to see his own ideas as valid and worthwhile.
There is absolutely no fault to be inferred on the part of Tom’s school teacher. It was simply unfortunate that well-meaning encouragement was perceived as unwanted pressure to achieve. Having said that, this is a constant danger, especially when we live and teach in an environment in which achievement is almost always expected. Ultimately, however, motivation has to come from pupils themselves for them to gain from their learning experiences.
In Tom’ s case, I am happy to report that he went on to study music at a Higher Education establishment. He continues to write music and enjoy his own creativity. Not only that, but he recently gave his first live performance at a local festival. This, for him, was a huge achievement and way beyond anything qualifications or certificates could provide.
It feels as though what Tom most needed was validation. He wanted to know that what he was doing was OK and that his efforts were legitimate. I revealed to Tom my own haphazard thought processes and creative workings. And this showed him there is nothing special about me, even though he had admired my work for some time.
Space and Respect
Tom has therefore become able to believe in his own potential to do similar, if not better, work himself. The motivation was already within him. Now, he also has the self-respect and mental space to act upon it.