How Do I See You, and What Does That Mean for Us? An Autoethnographic Study

Autoethnography is a form of research that is first-person based, studying and making meaning out of the personal experience of the author. The author of this study examines her own music therapy clinical work with children on the autism spectrum, asking herself “How do I see you?” and “What does that mean for us?”

           Throughout her time as a student and in the early days of her profession, Devlin could easily recite the textbook definition of autism, or outline goals and objectives for working with an autistic child: increase social skills, improve communication deficits, increase attention and focus, and grasp academic concepts. “My understanding of autism was that it was a disorder with a cluster of behavioral symptoms.” However, after a laughably disastrous initial music therapy session with a non-verbal eight-year-old named Graham, wherein the therapist and student struggled deeply to connect, Devlin realized she would have to change her approach to working with this population. “When I failed to interpret his reaction as anything other than a behavioral outburst, I missed a chance to see and hear Graham’s first attempt to communicate with me.” By moving her focus from working primarily on skill building (learning to spell my name, identifying colors, mathematical concepts), to working collaboratively with the client to achieve communication and relationship, the author was able to “be with” instead of “teach” or “do to/for.”

           Devlin outlines beautifully the experience of shifting her consciousness from a clinician identifying deficits to a human sitting with another human. The music in therapy became a way to connect their two different worlds. She calls the music they created together “spontaneous and unsure, experimental and untamed.”

A typically functioning human cannot fully know the lived experience of a person with autism, nor their sensory-physical understanding of the world around them. However, we can ask ourselves the questions the author poses herself “Is autism a disorder, or just one way of being in the world… or both?” We can question whether autism is a deficit or just a difference. And, like the author, we can reflect on ourselves, our own preconceived notions or understandings of autism, adjust and connect.

By Kristen Lynn Pugh, MT-BC

Kerry Devlin; How do I see you, and what does that mean for us? An autoethnographic study, Music Therapy Perspectives, Volume 36, Issue 2, 31 October 2018, Pages 234–242,