Meet Nico: The Autistic Teen Who Talks with Piano Fingers

This video was directed by Nicolas Joncour, a pianist and university student in France. Nico spells to communicate. He shared his message about nonspeaking autistics and what he wants the world to understand. Click for captions, or full transcript below:

I was born in October 1999 in France, a country that was not ready for me. I resembled my maternal grandpa, and my personality was like my father. I don’t remember much from when I was a baby, but I remember books. I read books in my bedroom. By reading, I learned a lot.  I had musical notes in my head since I was born. I think I have antennas on my head for music!

“GUITAR” was my first word, but I had to wait until my third birthday until I got my first guitar. When my family sings Happy Birthday, it feels like a jackhammer to my head. But the electric candle from the cake had a pleasant happy birthday song, which was more exciting.

In school, when I was 3, the teacher understood that something was different about me about me, even though the family doctor did not notice anything.  I was 9 years old when I realized that I was not like everyone else everyone else around me. I felt different and knew I was autistic. From that age on, people called me out for being autistic.

The Shoah Holocaust Memorial in Paris was of great interest to me. Most people were surprised that I was the one asking to attend. “How could this 10-year-old understand the story?”–they wondered.  

I was 12 when we adopted a dog from the shelter in Fougères and brought her home to Rennes. I chose the name Fourenne for her to combine the names of both towns. She knows that I love her but I can’t play with her–it’s hard.

Today at the university, it is different than my schooldays. This is because I am recognized as a student, just like all my peers. I describe my personality as reliable, you can count on me, honest, and a high defender of justice. But when strangers first see me, they usually think I am stupid, deaf, and can’t understand what they are saying.

I can’t control the sounds that I make. I do try to control it and to make less noise. It is very difficult for me to learn to play the piano, but when I play an instrument, I decide what gesture I want to make. I am in control. I calculate in my brain to successfully move from one key to another. When I do math, I can feel my body. Playing piano gives me the ability to be the master of my spirit.

Henny: Nico,  if science fiction would make it possible for autistic people to use math in their heads to control speech, do you think we should ask people to do math to feel their mouth?

It would be great to realize that, to make it possible. I would like to speak. I love Math. I wish language would be as easy as mathematics.

And do you think that we should push autistic people to use speech?

I want to talk, to speak, but not by way of force or pressure. It would be like forcing my mom to speak with a lot of people and being social in a large crowd.  Mom: “It’s horrible, it’s a torture”.

A really bad key or a wrong note played is like a knife on the brain! It is very painful. But when people see me playing a wrong key, they think I cannot read the notes.

They must understand that I have no capacity to control my gestures and movement. They should have a different opinion, but the problem is, that I can’t force them! Teachers of young autistic children must understand that we are clever, we can learn. Parents should understand that we are real people on the inside.

In ten years from now, my dream is to be the pope! I want to be the pope for people who are oppressed–people who have no education. In ten months from now, I just want to pass my exams.

I want the world to look like you, Henny.

Thank you, Nico!

Teaching autistic piano students to self-talk and regulate the mind-body disconnect

How does the autism mind-body disconnect interfere with piano lessons?

In this video, the student is in his 20th week of instruction. He is playing his assigned piece which he has practiced and knows well. Suddenly, his body fails to comply and he appears to “fail” at the task. In my work, teaching the students about the science of movement is key to help them organize their chaotic bodies and take control of sensory dysregulation, dyspraxia, dystonia, and other motor movement issues. It is critical to help the students learn self awareness. I strive to build their self esteem as they advance in their music education but their hands cannot prove that they know how to play the material placed on front of them. Remind them that you will keep teaching, if they will stick with the plan of “talking” to their bodies. Make a “deal” and watch them flourish.

Teaching piano student to stim as overwhelm prevention

me showing off my stim toys while student learned to use his sensory need as a overwhelm-preventative instead of a crash-erase.

Me showing off my stim toys while student learned to use his sensory need as a overwhelm-preventative instead of a crash-erase.

Two nonverbal preteens played the piano yesterday. They are my tough fighters, but also spell using RPM (Rapid Prompting Method) letterboards. They frequently type their complaints about their brain-body disconnect and how embarrassing it is that they can’t show through their fingers that they know the music.

Me: “Who else sees your body like this? In what other situation?” WHEN IM OVERWHELMED

“Do you know the difference between physical, emotional, and sensory overwhelm?” NO

And then the Henny-lecture began:

“Play one line, and then go back to the sink and play with the water. That’s what your body needs in order to erase the overwhelm. I don’t want you to wait until your body crashes and then you look like a person who is embaressed of yourself. Go back to the sink to prevent overwhelm. Do we have a deal?” YES

Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism A Guide for Educators, Parents and the Musically Gifted

READ: Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism
A Guide for Educators, Parents and the Musically Gifted

He then played three lines instead of 1, went to the sink. Returned. Played two more lines. Sink. Returned. Thanked me….

I teach awareness of self, so they can make choices. With other autism interventions (such as ABA), they are conditioned to be so prompt dependent, they they lose touch with internal functions. They forget to read their own body signals. In my work teaching piano to nonverbal and autistic students, I undo that damage. Each time they stim, I announce like a translator “you just did that with your fingers near your eyes because you wanted to erase the work of reading treble and bass clef together for the first time”.

As an autistic person, I live inside their sensory experience and can read them instantly. By offering these nuggets, they can learn to connect what they do with why they do it. Eventually, they can reach for those stims as preventative tools. For a list of stimming ideas, see my resources page.