Connecting to My Autistic Son Through Our Shared Love of Music

It’s Raining Men is in my head,'” says my son the second I trudge into the kitchen on an unseasonably cold Saturday morning. The chill in the air is matched by the aloof but not unexpected greeting from my fully awake 16-year-old.

There’s no “Good morning.” Not even a “Mom, what’s for breakfast?” At this particularly rare moment, Evan doesn’t need my help. He’s already located a box of Lucky Charms and is methodically picking out the marshmallows and thinking about a specific song.

Author and sons at a Bruno Mars concert in 2018. (via Jennifer Lovy)

“Alexa, play It’s Raining Men,” he says to the little gray cylinder on our kitchen counter, and within seconds, my son and I are enjoying the up-tempo beat of the Weather Girls. 

I try to sing along.

It’s raining men, hallelujah

It’s raining men, amen

He impatiently tells me to be quiet. However, it’s hard to resist not blurting out the rest of the lyrics. 

Cause tonight for the first time

Just about half-past ten…

Music is the way I connect with my autistic son. (via Jennifer Lovy)

My son and I share a love for certain musical genres and artists

As the song ends, I grab Evan a bowl and remind him for the thousandth time that it’s not ok to just eat the marshmallows. He doesn’t respond but tells Alexa to play “Piano Man.” I forget about the cereal as my heart fills with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that my son and I share a passion for almost all genres of music and an intense love for Billy Joel, Elton John, and Bob Seger.  

“Piano Man” by Billy Joel was his first single. (1973)

Evan is our middle child. He has a brother who is 14 months older and a sister who is 21 months younger. He wears glasses and talks in a purposefully deep voice. He has most likely maxed out on his growth potential at five feet two inches tall. And, just a few weeks before his second birthday, he got an autism diagnosis.

The diagnosis explained his early behavior and allowed us to start providing the support and services he needed. More important, it explained why I felt like I couldn’t bond with our second-born son. 

I blamed myself for not being able to connect with my second-born son

At first, I blamed myself for our lack of connection, feeling guilty for bringing home another baby when our oldest was still a baby himself. It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I realized I had more than enough guilt-free love to give multiple children and that our son could not connect with those around him, including his parents, who loved him unconditionally. 

For a long time, raising Evan made me feel like a child who wanted a puppy but ended up with a goldfish. That child gives her fish a name and provides it with food and clean water. But, no matter how hard she tries to create a bond with her pet, the fish does not respond because you cannot interact with a fish. 

As heartless as it sounds, this was our reality. Our son did not respond to the sound of our gentle voices. He did not care about being held. He refused to meet our gaze. For the first few years of his life, he appeared apathetic and indifferent to us. Although our love for him grew deeper and stronger, it was painful, and we were heartbroken. During those early years, I couldn’t help but wonder, would he even notice if we didn’t come home one day?

As our son got older, we looked for ways to connect with him

As Evan got older, we continued searching for ways to enter his world and bring him into ours. But often, in this intersection, neither of us was particularly comfortable. Our world was too noisy and unpredictable, and his world was filled with long, repetitive, and mostly one-sided conversations about spiderwebs, curly hair, and ceiling fans.

It took the 2016 death of Prince for me to discover a way for Evan and me to connect through our mutual passion for music. When this iconic pop star died, Evan sat with me, watching music videos of Little Red Corvette and Purple Rain. He listened with a rare sincere interest as I shared memories associated with the music of my teens. 

At that moment, I realized that music was our common denominator in an equation that doesn’t always add up or make sense. 

Before discovering our shared passion for music, it was nearly impossible to interact with Evan in a mutually meaningful way. While parents lament making connections with their teenage offspring, my son’s autism added a much deeper layer of complexity to our relationship. 

Our shared love of music makes it a little easier to parent

Our shared interest now makes parenting Evan a little easier, especially when he spends so much time making offensive comments to us, most of which are too obnoxious to share. 

The reasons behind his behavior vary, from anxiety caused by the possibility of a thunderstorm to a variety of other unknown factors that we may never know or understand. And, despite all the professional interventions and various discipline and reward systems, trying to curtail these outbursts remains an exhausting work in progress. 

My son and I both love many types of music

What helps our relationship is that we both like almost all types of music. I am incredibly grateful that we share a passion for 80s tunes, marvel at Joe Walsh’s guitar solo in Hotel California, and think that Billy Joel is the greatest musician of all time. 

My son and I have discovered that Werewolves of London and Sweet Home Alabama share the same opening bars. We’ve wondered if the Love Shack that the B-52s sing about is a real place. And, we’ve debated his favorite topic, which 80s band had the best hair. He chose Motley Crue. I picked Def Leppard.  

I love that he almost always knows the song title and artist when we listen to a classic rock or top 40 radio station. We call Evan Shazam because, like the app, he can quickly identify the title of a song and its artist after hearing it once or twice.

I love that he derives pleasure from listening to so many genres of music and, depending on his mood, it does so many things for him. Although some classical music, particularly the slow pieces played on strings, makes him sad, music tends to calm him down. It brings him joy and gives him something to talk about that most people can easily relate to. 

One day after school, during a rare moment where my teenage daughter ventured outside the confines of her room, she was listening to Levitating by Dua Lipa before it became popular. Evan excitedly entered the room to identify the song and its artist.

Impressed, my daughter asked, “How did you know that?” His response: “I have good taste in music.” 

Suddenly the two, who spend most of their conversations trying to annoy each other, were engaged in an impromptu game of name that tune, and Evan was killing it. 

Looking back, I now see how music has always impacted my son’s life. His first words were “car,” “star,” and “beep” — seemingly random — unless you’re a Beatles fan and know the song Drive my Car.

I’d sing, entirely out of tune, “Baby you can drive my…” and Evan, then three, would blurt out “car.” I’d continue, “Yes, I’m gonna be a…” He’d shout “star” and then skip to his favorite part … “Beep beep’m beep beep yeah.”

Music has always calmed my son when he’s agitated

Music had a way of calming him down when he was agitated and didn’t have the words to communicate his frustrations, wants, or needs. When Evan was around five, he ran to the piano and played the same annoying tune he had just heard blaring from the ice cream truck as it crawled through the neighborhood on a warm summer evening. We thought we’d discovered a savant talent. It didn’t exactly turn out that way, but he loves his weekly piano lessons and can easily figure out how to play some of his favorite songs without the cords. 

Autism is a package deal. Part of my son’s autism conglomeration is a barrage of sensory issues, making the sound of certain words unbearable for him. None of it makes sense to us, and he can’t articulate why he hates words like perhaps or appreciate. Yet, despite his inability to answer why hearing these words is a problem, there was a time when he was able to find a way to ease the threat of encountering them simply by listening to Spanish techno music.

While there are very few why questions he can answer about himself, he gave a concise and straightforward explanation when asked about his new-found affinity for this genre of music. “Because it doesn’t have words I don’t like,” he insightfully told me. 

A few years ago, we tried taking our autistic son to a concert with mixed results

A few years ago, I wanted to find a way to further capitalize on our shared interest and kept coming back to the idea of going to a concert with Evan. The only problem was the potential sensory nightmare of a live music experience. In 2018, we tried a Bruno Mars concert. A friend got us into a suite to make the experience more intimate and give him a place to retreat if it was too much. 

I managed to connect with someone from the tour, and she was nice enough to provide me with the setlist and the exact parts of the show where there would be fireworks. Despite having this information, and the semi-seclusion of the suite, we made it through two songs before the pyrotechnics caused my son to explode. The crying, screaming, and swearing was his way of telling us he was done. 

The following year, he asked about trying a concert at an outdoor venue. It seemed like a good idea, but I wondered if the cheering would be too much or if the lack of lighting might cause him to become unglued again. 

To my surprise, he rocked it — pun intended — during Bob Seger’s 2019 Roll Me Away tour. Without the pyrotechnics, my son was a much calmer concert-goer. 

He grew restless near the show’s end, so I handed him my phone. But when the woman sitting behind us casually grabbed it and instructed him to get up and dance with his mom, he became enraged and repeatedly asked me why she did that.  

Still, he held it together, and we stuck around until the end. If you ask him about the concert he thoroughly enjoyed, the first thing he’ll tell you is the story about the woman who took the phone. 

I think it will always be challenging to connect with Evan on a topic of mutual interest. But, then again, how do parents find threads of commonality with our teens who no longer want us in the way they did when they were miniature versions of themselves? 

I am so grateful that my son and I can share the gift of music

Thankfully, my son and I have music. In three years, when our house becomes especially quiet because his older brother will be forging his path in the world and his younger sister will be leaving for college, our home will be filled with the sound of all different types of music, from classical to classic rock because music is and probably always will be our common denominator — even if my favorite artists include Billy Joel and Elton John and he is especially fond of The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, and Wiz Khalifa.

More Great Reading:

I’ve Never Been More Aware That I Have a Child With Autism

About Jennifer Lovy

Jennifer Lovy is a Detroit-area journalist, writing primarily about
parenting, religion, and culture. Her work appears in a variety of local and
national magazines, as well as online sites including Romper, Scary Mommy,
HuffPost, and Ravishly. Jen is a full-time wife and mother of three teenagers, a part-time business manager, and a recovering attorney. She considers herself a travel junkie, Peloton addict, and mediocre tennis player. She's also a perpetual advocate for her son with autism. Currently, you can find her trying to adjust to sending her first child off to college by organizing and cleaning her house.

Read more posts by Jennifer

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.