Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Reviews are In

After three years of Liam's autodidactic exploration, and a few wonderful teachers who have helped him build on his passions, he's started to create art, video and music to be seen by others.  Lots of others.

This year, Liam was invited for the first time, to display one of his pieces in the Burbank Art Show as part of Pastimes for a Lifetime and I've gotten several requests to purchase his paintings.  This one was a big hit at the art show and has gotten the most "print" requests.



video

Liam just performed his 9th live gig as a musician with his new band the P-22s (named after the famous Griffith Park mountain lion).  His band-mates appreciate what he does on the keyboard and are accepting of all of his quirks.  When the old band split, they asked Liam to be part of the new group.  I always hoped people would appreciate him for those things he does really well.  This was the first real test of that hope.  We're very lucky to have found such an amazing group of kids and a teacher who helps them all to play well and grow as musicians. 

He's spent countless hours teaching himself advanced techniques on video editing programs and I expected that eventually, he'd create content that others might find interesting. As of today, his YouTube channels have 1,116 subscribers and 2,015,299 views.  Many viewers are parents with kids, who love his countdown and alphabet videos, created in stop-motion, Sony Vegas Pro, Animate or After Effects.  He also applies special effects to bumpers and clips (the Clasky Chupo "Splat" is a popluar one, as well as the PBS logo and the animated sequences from Sesame street). 

Here are links to the most-viewed videos from two of his channels:

https://youtu.be/yxzNdr_Jk5M
https://youtu.be/uJcKWHF2ygQ




video

There is a whole community of YouTubers modifying videos with layers of effects, and they like to give detailed instructions on how to create them (or ask each other in comments how it was done).  Liam has started to make short, tutorial videos of his process, as well as making comments on other videos. 

He's produced several music videos and intro bumpers for his music teacher, which he uses on his own YouTube channel and for social media.

video


And he's starting to appreciate people liking his work.  It's slowly dawning on him that you can make things FOR someone, and that it is cool when they enjoy it. After making the music videos and intros for his music teacher, he said, "I think Dan will love this!"

I'm so happy that we decided to let him spend as much time as he wants on his passions.  The world is a much more welcoming place, when you enter it with something interesting to share. And Liam's work is always interesting, as are the people with whom he shares it.

Liam is now entering what would be 6th grade, in a typical school setting. I am more excited than ever to see where his talents take him and find out who else will be joining us along the way. 



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mythical Beasts and Where to Find Them



Our 10 yr. old neighbor rolled up to the house on Easter morning, as I was out having a cup of coffee with my neighbor/buddy cat, Henry.  "Hey - check out what the Easter Bunny brought me!"he chirped, and flashed his new, white sneakers.  "What did the Easter Bunny bring Liam?"

I hesitated for a moment.

In our house, there isn't a big deal made of presents around holidays.  Family members ask what Liam might like for his birthday or Christmas.  Usually, we suggest money, or art supplies, since Liam never really asks for anything.  And while he'd readily identify the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, if shown a picture, he never really associated them with getting gifts.  So on the one hand, we've never been pressured about presents for weeks (or months) prior to big holidays and birthdays, nor could we use the threat, "if you are naughty, Santa won't bring any presents."  We just got used to doing without the mythical beasts that dwell in most young children's imaginations.



So, to answer my young friend's question, I simply said, "Liam didn't get anything for Easter.  He didn't ask the Easter Bunny for anything."  It was clearly an unsatisfactory answer.  As it is when I tell my parents the same thing around Christmas or birthday time.  "He doesn't want anything."  I've heard this line used by parents trying to ward off a slew of presents for the child who has enough, but in our case, it's the honest truth.

When Liam asks for something, it's usually something like a graphics package or a plug-in for an editing program - something for which the giver needs passwords and access codes.   This year he DID ask for a special birthday present.  He wants a kitten, to replace our 16 yr. old kitty, who passed away a couple of months ago. 

That doesn't mean that Liam lacks imagination.  Instead of talking about the childhood trifecta of holiday heroes, Liam ascribes personalities to inanimate objects.  He's been known to hug a road sign, say, "hello" to a traffic cone and the other day, he discovered our P-Touch label maker and gave names to all of the objects in my husband's studio (Barry, Benny and Bruce, the drawers, were my favorites).

A big part of our life with Liam is completely letting go of what's "typical" and seeing what "is."  As he matures, it's clear he's aware of the world around him, but he is revealing more and more of the world inside him.  So, instead of excitedly showing off his Easter gift, Liam calls us into his room to see his latest video creation on YouTube, Adobe After Effects or BlocksWorld.

Last week, he produced a music video for his band director, Dan West.  I'd trade his excitement in creating that video for any holiday gift you could name.

Just before posting this, he wanted to show me something else - an amazing re-creation of a Mark Raetz sculpture, done in BlocksWorld.  His understanding of how to create this dimensional illusion blew us away.

I used to feel sad that we didn't share the same, magical universe as other families.  Now, we're finding the joy of watching the Universe that Liam creates for himself.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Always Have an Escape Plan

As anyone with an autistic child knows, in any new, public situation, there is the plan and then there is the escape planThe plan may be to go see the latest blockbuster animated film.  The escape plan involves taking seats on the isle, just in case the movie was mastered at "Voice of GOD" levels and your child starts to try to burrow under the seats to escape the noise.  Or, the plan might be to attend a dear friend's wedding.  The escape plan involves sitting in a less-populated pew, in the back of the church, again on the end, in case your child's inability to understand the protocols of church cause the need to exit quickly.  As time goes by, you find you need the escape plan less and less.  It might almost make you forget to make one.  Don't.

Last night, we attended what we hoped would be a cool experience for Liam, especially with his newfound interest in organ music.  We went to Walt Disney Hall to hear organist Felix Hell, perform a Bach concert.
Walt Disney Hall

The concert hall is an architectural masterpiece, a sweeping, soaring building on the outside and an interior designed to naturally amplify and reflect the tiniest of sounds. Visually, the space was captivating and normally the sonic sensitivity would be a dream-come-true for someone wanting to taste every note of a delicate piece of music.  The seats are designed so that no-one is ever blocking anyone's view.  In fact, everyone can pretty much see everyone else when the house lights are partially up, as they were in this performance - a fact I would later come to regret.

My husband said he knew we'd made a mistake when he read the evening's program: "Goldberg Variations, BWV 988."  Did you know that the history of this piece is that it was written to help the Russian ambassador to Saxony with his insomnia? Yes.  It is lovely, well known, popular and so goddamn tranquil that it only took about 10 minutes before trouble started.  Don't get me wrong, the organist was brilliant, but this piece, full of gentle, quiet passages was death-on-toast for an autistic 11 yr. old who loves the booming, soaring Bach of "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor."

The hall amplifies EVERY sound - not just those on stage, but a quiet rustling of a jacket (did I mention Liam was wearing a windbreaker?), a cough and of course, my son saying "I think I might have an allergy."  With those words, it felt like a prison-yard search light had been turned on us. We started whispering quick directions to Liam that he couldn't talk during the concert AT ALL.  He nodded and began to fidget instead.  His feet tapped on the ground behind what was, in Disney Hall's seating, the head of the person behind him.  Both John and I put our hands on his legs, and whispered to stop, which only escalated the fidgiting, the rustling of his windbreaker sounding like a thousand candy wrappers adding to the thumping of his feet.  We tried again to still him, which only resulted in his plainly spoken, "why are you saying "SSSSSHHH?" We were in real trouble.

And we were completely trapped.  I'd purchased the tickets on Goldstar. Part of my "new experience" strategy is to buy discounted tickets to events, to make the possibility of ditching less painful.  I had not had the option of choosing our seats, which were smack-dab in the middle of a row of about 15 people on either side of us.  There was no extra space in front of our feet to scoot out past the people beside us. Also, the folks in the row were mostly elderly, so asking them to move or even making them aware they'd need to move was going to be next to impossible. I was keenly aware that before the show even started it took about 10 minutes for an usher to explain to a very elderly couple in front of us that they were in the wrong seats and another 5 for the gentleman to stand, shakily and move down a seat.  Glancing at the row of white heads to either side, I could not imagine a quick or quiet exit that way.
Interior of the music hall for a different concert.  If you start at the top of the picture, center and look in the second row of the balcony, you can see where we were sitting.

Meanwhile the writhing and stomping had increased and was about to reach critical mass.  Liam was grabbing onto us, pushing his head into our bodies and we were practically laying on him, both to give him reassurance and stop the stomping, but I could hear small noises rising in his throat and see a panic creeping onto his face.  He could not contain himself at all and we couldn't help him.

I knew that whatever we did next would be seen by a nearly full theater of people,  but not doing something would result in ruining the rest of the performance for everyone there.  My husband and I sent urgent glances to each other.  We could tell we were running out of time.  We waited for a slightly louder passage in the insanely quiet music so we could make a plan.

He leaned in and whispered, "I see a way out," glancing behind us at open seats that extended to the last row of the balcony about 4 rows away.  "I see it too.  Over the top?"  He nodded "yes."  The music dropped again to a quiet passage and Liam was holding John's hand over his mouth. Liam knew it was a bad situation too, but he was about to lose it.  I watched him contort his face as he tried to contain his mounting anxiety.  I slid the Etch-A-Sketch Liam had been holding into my purse and snapped it shut.  The snap sounded like a bullet. 

Finally - another loud passage.  "Now or never,"  John said, hoisting Liam over the back of the chair, and with his extra-long limbs, carried him over the rows of seats - straight to the last row and out the exit.  Thankfully the people to either side made no disparaging remarks. They wanted us gone as much as we wanted to go.  I was able to climb over the first seat, but my short legs weren't going to make the other 3 rows.  One woman leapt to her feet and tried to pull me over the next row.  I thanked her but said I wouldn't make it.  Instead, I saw that there were only about six people in my new row.  By this point, there was no need to alert them - they all saw me coming, stood quickly and accepted my whispered apology "so sorry, we're leaving!" as I dashed down the row and followed my family out of the hall to the lobby where we regrouped.

We made it to our car and back out onto the highway.  "OH MY GOD, THAT WAS STRESSFUL!" he said - bursting with relief.  "I've never felt so trapped!"

"I know.  I kept hoping we could make it to intermission. I'm glad the people were helpful about getting us out of there!" (note - when we got home and studied the program, I saw there was to be NO INTERMISSION - see below).


We got home, made a shaker of martinis and went over the events, while Liam went happily back to playing Angry Birds on his iPad.

We didn't blame Liam for not being into the music - with apologies to all Bach/"Goldberg" fans, we weren't really that into it either.  It was insane to ask any kid, let alone an autistic one, to sit perfectly still for that.  We concluded that, after experiencing the incredible acoustics of the hall, we wouldn't bring Liam back there, unless it was a loud performance and we had aisle seats.

For those people for whom we caused a distraction, we are sorry from the bottom of our souls.  But at least they'll have a great story.

And from now on, the first thing we'll do in a new space, is look for the emergency exits.

Footnote: In relating this story to my mother-in-law, I found out that at least one of her friends was AT the concert last night.  I guess I'll find out what stories others will tell about us, after all.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Keys

The organ teacher asked him to play.  So Liam sat down to play his version of "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on the Steinway piano in the church.  He seemed to be enjoying the perfect tuning and rich tone of the instrument as he worked his way through what he knew of the piece.  He still uses odd fingering and his pace is all over the place.

I watched Liam and I watched her face.  Wonder and concern flitted across her features in turn.  We talked about the difficulty in getting him to practice skills outside of a piece itself.  She reached around him and demonstrated a simple piece of music to work proper fingering.  He followed her clam, insistent hands.

She invited him to join her at the organ.  He could finally hear the piece as it was intended, on the full organ.  She showed him how the stops worked and he played with sounds, finally letting loose with all stops out.  Aware of the folks working in the church office, the teacher tried to push some stops back in, but he would have none of it - he wanted that big, full sound.  Sonically, as usual, he made it sound good, but technically, as usual, it was a slippery mess.

After some time, my husband and I discussed her assessment.  "He's very talented - such ears! And I want to work with him, but I worry, in my heart, that I won't know how to reach him."

"Oh, that's fine." I said, "We feel that way every day."

She smiled, but still looked a little worried.  "If you'd rather not take him on, I understand, but you should know that every teacher who meets him feels the same way.  You will find a way to reach him.  Just be direct and insistent.  Make the boundaries clear, and he will learn to follow your lead.  We don't know where it will lead, either, but if he's excited about something, you can use it to your advantage!"

We agreed to go for it and see if they can find their groove.  When he finished his first lesson, Liam shouted from behind the huge instrument, "I'm an ORGANIST!" then raised both arms with thumbs-up.

And so we've added another teacher to Liam's life, with another set of keys.  I know from experience that all teachers (myself included) spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to unlock his potential.  Sometimes it feels like coming home late on a Saturday night with no porch light as you fumble to find the right key and get it into the lock, before either dropping the damn keys or scratching the hell out of the door.

But I also know that with patience, and persistence, talent and imagination, potential becomes reality.  Liam's art teacher Linda, at Pastimes for a Lifetime, has helped him grow in this way.  His raw talent is apparent, and now it's taking form in ways that other people can enjoy.  Here are a few of his recent works, unlocked by a teacher who found the right keys:










Thursday, March 16, 2017

The One Even Less Traveled By

Two roads diverged in a wood and I
I took the one less traveled by
Until my son grabbed my hand
And together we made a third path
Where no-one else had been

Walk with me.

I'm listening to my son's piano lesson in the next room, as I write this.  Last year, he started teaching himself Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," by ear.  About the same time, he joined a rock band class.  The bond with his band teacher, Dan West, allowed him to transition back into private piano lessons at home.  He had hit a wall in playing the piece and needed to learn technique to proceed. Dan also directed his band, P.A.N.D.A., and Liam was able to see that practicing songs led to playing with others and playing for other people. It gave music a "why." 

Now, bit by bit, he follows his teacher through the piece, improving, goofing, learning.  It will be rewarding to hear him wander over to the keyboard later in the week and play it, just for pleasure.

Recently, we got a notice from Goldstar Tickets about a Pipe Organ Concert at Disney Hall.  Liam has been watching performances of "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on YouTube, featuring amazing organists.  (In fact the technical skill of those players made him want to play at the same breakneck speed - a hard habit to break). I showed him a video of the featured organist and he ran over to his keyboard saying, "I want to play the organ with my feet!"  He proceeded to play his piece, while pretending to play bass notes with his feet on the floor.  I bought the tickets.

It got me to thinking, I used to sing in a choir, directed by one of the top concert organists in town, Christoph Bull.  I reached out and asked if he, or anyone he knew, offered lessons on the pipe organ.  As it turned out, one of his former students, Dr. Namhee Han, was giving a concert at Our Lady of Angeles the following day.  I wrote to her and asked if she might consider meeting Liam as a prospective student.  We went to the concert and Liam listened and watched and asked if he could play that organ.  I told him he'd have to wait to have a lesson and we agreed to meet with Dr. Han at her church in Westwood the following week.

The steps that led to these discoveries began long before I even met my son. Because I sang in a choir 18 years ago, I knew a brilliant organist.  Because I have been improvising since the late 80's I know that "yes" leads to far more interesting options than saying, "no."  And because we chose to allow Liam to lead the way, all of these past experiences have converged into a new path.

On days it feels like we are wandering in the woods, I remind myself that this is not the road I imagined, or the one most others take, but that makes all the difference.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Accidentally Perfect

Letting things happen, as opposed to making them happen, has its share of magical moments.  Last week, the Natural History Museum had another free homeschool day on a day we happened to have free.  We hadn't been in a while, so we grabbed our TAP passes and headed out to the Metro train station down the block.

Liam listened to the announcer and decided to re-announce each stop as if it were a bumper for a TV show.  "Hollywood and Highland, coming up next - part of the Red Line family of stations."

When we got to the museums, the rose garden approach to the NHM was closed and we were closer to the Science Center.  Since the California Science Center is always free, I had planned to visit the NHM first, but decided to take advantage of proximity instead.

As we entered, we were greeted with signs announcing a special exhibit of the art of Pixar animation.  Holy crap - how perfect could it get?  The exhibit cost extra, so we hurried to the ticket booth and threw down for two tickets.  Let's just say, we never made it to the Natural History Museum.

Liam stopped to play at every station.  Digital animation incorporates math, science and art.  Liam doesn't think about the mechanics, but he intuitively grasps visual concepts.  At each station, there was a visual puzzle to solve and he was in Heaven.



Designing a virtual set

Programming the visual effect of grass



Making robots from various shapes

In this simulation, the visual effect of Miranda's hair was added and taken away, which Liam found to be endlessly funny.
Here, Liam plays with lighting colors, effects and sources in a scene from "Finding Dory."


Playing with extruded 2D shapes to create 3D objects


Listening to descriptions of the various character models

Working at the stop-motion station to create the video below
video

At the end of the day, we exited through the park and back to the subway, taking a moment to enjoy a natural wonder.
Proving once again, that the most beautiful discoveries are often made by accident.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Pimple of Doom (or Autism and Adolescence)


My son got his first pimple.  "Well, here it comes," I remember thinking.  And it did.

If you asked an adult if they wanted to go back and relive any part of their early life, I'd be willing to bet nobody would choose the middle-school years.  Nobody.

I knew that pimple wasn't just a blemish, but a bright, red sign, signalling the start of the Hellscape known as puberty - new interests, new passions and new hormones making everything more dramatic.

Life was about to get. . .exciting. . .

It started in a way which would annoy anyone - an operating system update.  I'd been pressing the "remind me later" message for a few weeks on my own phone.  It never occurred to me to tell Liam that he might want to do the same.

A few days ago, I heard "IT'S UPDATING THE SYSTEM!!!!" from my son's room.  I thought he was upset because the iPad wouldn't respond while the system was updating.

"It's OK," I said.  "It will work again as soon as it's done."  I removed it from his room for the update and then returned it when it had finished.

A few moments later I heard, "It's OS 10.2 - I don't like 10.2!  MAKE IT 9.4!" 

"It's just a system update.  There is nothing wrong with your iPad.  Try it like this for a while!"

"Put it back to 9.4 please, put it back to 9.4 please, put it back to 9.4 PLEEAAASSEEEE!" With each "please" he was getting more and more upset.  I even went online to see if it was possible.  I tried the suggestions I found.  I tried three different suggestions.  None of them worked.

"I'm sorry, buddy, but I can't change it.  It can't be put back."

"FUCK you!"  he shouted.  My husband spirited him away to his room, letting him know it was not OK to say that to Mom, but afterwards, we smiled.  Why?  Because it was a clear, direct expression of how he felt to the person he needed to hear it.  He didn't say, "through the park," an expression of discontent he uses, by equating his least-favorite way of getting to Urban Homeschoolers with whatever unpleasantness is happening at the moment.  He dug deep and let me have it in the way every 10 year old has (at least under his breath), for all time.  It showed that there were new connections to us and to his own emotions.

To be clear, I don't relish verbal abuse from anyone, and we made it clear that it wasn't OK to scream that at people, but we did acknowledge his frustration - something I'd have to do for the rest of the week, because he's also holding onto things longer.  The difference between his childhood meltdowns and now seems to be his attempt to manage it - himself.  He does keep trying to get me to fix it, but after each rebuttal, he goes muttering off, then finds something to cheer himself up.  He's learning.

Now we jump off of the big cliff.  The precipice of adolescence, where most people start to use justification and rationalizations to handle the bigger problems that come with a more complicated relationship to the world.  But for Liam, those concepts of "justification," "rationalization,"  and sometimes even the more general "cause and effect" are meaningless.

He posts his visual effect video clips on YouTube where there is a whole community of kids modifying and re-posting the same clips.  And he's even learned to write descriptions for others to read (he didn't realize there were other people watching for the longest time). But he doesn't understand the difference between posting his own work and re-posting someone else's work (and why that might piss someone off).  I still have to monitor his channels and moderate the comments and explain some angry responses to him.  He's started to add new channels, but originally, he just hijacked mine (with permission).  Most of the effects were created in Sony Vegas Pro: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCV2lCvbfWcq50_OuZbSK0lQ?view_as=public

Now we have to help him grow his talents, grow his new-found communication skills and find new ways to bridge the gaps in his understanding to allow him, if not empathy, then at least a sense of the "rules" of the game.

Music is also helping him forge some bonds.  He "gets" music and how to listen and be a part of a musical dialogue - much more easily than engaging in a verbal one. Band rehearsals have been bumped up to once-a-week and they even entered a video audition for "America's Got Talent."  I never dreamed he'd be writing songs and playing in a rock band.  Here's the "official" band picture included with their audition.
All of the kids picked their own outfits for the photo shoot.  Liam picked a graphic tee and wore a necklace I let him choose on Etsy (it's imprinted with the coordinates of our house).  It looks like he's found his "cool." Usually, when we take a picture, he fixes a goofy grimace. We also set up a YouTube channel for their songs, so the producers could hear them playing in front of an audience: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGGbqqtQ4tykh3D_3frSN7w?view_as=public

While puberty scares me, it also holds the seeds of adulthood and I'm very excited to see what kind of man my son will be. 

In the meantime, I guess it's time to get him some facial cleanser.  It's going to be a "bumpy" ride!