But First Do No Harm

But First Do No Harm:  Yes it’s part of the Hippocratic oath, but it has also been the phrase that has guided both my parenting and my teaching, more or less successfully depending on the day!  It is also the name of my newest musical project, sharing “concert-conversations” about disability awareness and inclusion.

My devil’s advocate friends often ask me, “But everyone knows about disabilities, they don’t need you to make them aware.”  Yes, in principle, most people do know about disabilities.  They certainly know how to recognize someone in a wheel chair, someone with a physical disability.  But what about invisible disabilities , like ADD, ADHD, Autism (ASD), Learning Disabilities (LD)?  While people know about them from reading about them, they quite often do not recognize what they are looking at when they meet someone with one of these labels.  And they often do not understand the trauma and frustration that accompany those labels.  Or how those labels may have an impact on a child’s behavior.

As I have observed often throughout my life, a person with autism looks like anyone else their age, but when people start to talk to them, they discern something different.  But they don’t know what.  And the usual response is to move slowly away.  People rarely say to themselves, “Oh, s/he has autism.”  They more often say to themselves, “Oh, s/he is weird.”  Instead of moving away, an alternative response could be to think for a moment, “Oh, this person is different, I need to figure out a different way of conversing.  It’s okay that they are not like me, we can still figure out a way to communicate.”

How different the world would be if we did that with everyone we met throughout our days!  We might then not have xenophobia, or homophobia, or autism-phobia.  If we weren’t busy “othering” people, we might be able to have friends and acquaintances that are very different than us, and respect and appreciate differences rather than fear them.

Autism is very different than a physical disability…and first of all, is it even a disability?  Depends on who you ask.  Whether you think of autism as a disability or not will have a big impact on how you interact with someone with autism.  And whether you are one of those people who pulls away or leans in (not physically maybe, but with your intention) will determine what kind of conversation and respect you are showing the person with autism.

When my family and I first arrived in the United States, my son was 3 and a half.  He was mostly non-verbal, but understood and responded to two languages with no trouble.  Wherever we went in nature, animals seemed to gather, and not run away the way they would run away from me.  Deer seemed especially entranced by him.  Having just arrived from the Middle East, he was equally entranced by the deer.

As a musician, I sang to my children constantly, and he sang every song with me on key.  He could sing, but he couldn’t talk.  From the time he was born I knew that something was up, and had been trying to figure out how to help him without being scared by labels and diagnoses.  I wrote this song over a number of years, and it actually has a factoid that is now dated, that is no longer conventional wisdom about autism.  When I present it now, I ask the audience, “Do you know what is no longer true in this song?”  See if you can figure it out.

The name of the song is “The Deer Know Nothing’s Wrong”.  May we all learn that…..different is not wrong.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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10 Responses to But First Do No Harm

  1. It’s a wonderful song with a beautiful message, very personal yet universal.

  2. Brigid Finucane says:

    Congratulations on this new direction!
    Thank you for a lovely inaugural blog post. The deer story was entrancing and the song possesses heartbreaking beauty and truths.

    • Joanie CalemJoanie Calem says:

      Thank you Brigid! And the deer story is of course all true. But our romance with deers continues, we have a family that roams through our backyard now. Our joke at home is one day one of them is going to knock on the door and ask if my son can come out to play…he seems to be a magnet!

  3. Liz Buchanan says:

    Thanks for tackling this topic, Joanie! I look forward learning more about autism; I’m sure it will be useful in my teaching and music practice!

    • Joanie CalemJoanie Calem says:

      All of us teachers need to be very well versed in this phenomenon as more and more children come into our classes with autism and other special needs.

  4. I have Joanie’s new CD, which I got at the People’s Music Network Gathering in June. There is one song about how ridiculous it would be to ask a rabbit to swim and or to accuse a squirrel of cheating when it climbs up a tree when asked to fly. Joanie has a way of telling what should be obvious but isn’t. Thank you, Joanie!!We all have different gifts—nature tells us that every day. Autism doesn’t need to be fixed, but appreciated and understood.

  5. Jenny Murphy says:

    Great song Joanie! Such a thoughtful and personal story so beautifully represented!

    • Joanie CalemJoanie Calem says:

      Thanks Jenny….it’s to my son but also to all of the bazillion kids these days walking to the beat of a different drum.

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