Some months ago, Joseph's class teacher sent me a link of a song they were going to start learning and rehearsing at school as part of his involvement in the school choir. The song was John Farnham: You're The Voice.
I immediately looked at the title and had no idea as to what the song was and despite me being told it was an 80s classic, it didn't ring any bells. I listened to it and it was vaguely familiar. I'm not in denial around my age but I was more a Wet Wet Wet and Whitney Houston type of kid and this kind of music didn't really appear on my radar.
The first few times I played it him, he showed little interest and every time I asked him if he wanted to listen to it, I was answered with his usual assertive politeness "NO THANK YOU!" After a few weeks, I found him googling it himself and joining in more and more with the WHOAAAAAA sections. He enjoyed the bagpipe break and started to develop a warble, although an out of tune warble at times but seemed to know where he needed to come in with the words and as long as you didn't ask him to sing it, he'd break into the song at random moments.
His school notified me that there would be some more songs on the way and asked whether he would like to participate in Young Voices. For the benefit of those who have not heard of or experienced Young Voices, let me tell you a little about it. Each year participating schools are given a collection of songs that they rehearse for a good few months and the end result is an arena concert along with thousands of other school children. All of these children coming together to sing the same songs is a mammoth effort for anyone involved in organising it.
There was no hesitation in me saying yes and only began to think of the practicalities around it some time later; I was just thrilled he was benefiting from the same opportunity as everyone else.
The song became my guilty pleasure and I enjoyed Joseph's renditions of it in the car on the way to school. When I say enjoy, I mean I actually pissed myself laughing at my child who was born in 2008 immersing himself in music from twenty years before he was born. What was apparent though, once again, was his love of certain songs and types of music with no rhyme or reason as to why he enjoys them so much.
The guilty pleasure evolved into, shall we say a pain in the fucking arse? I had listened to it that much, I knew it almost back to front myself and regularly thought that sticking needles in my eyes would be less painful than having the song on constant repeat. My partner's son was also participating with his school and I encouraged him to sing some of the others with him but Joseph wasn't having any of it. I was told by his teacher that when the choir were singing another song in assembly recently, he was happy to take part and stand at the front (that in itself is a huge improvement) but would he sing the song? Would he balls. He knows what he likes and he sticks to it - not sure where that trait derives from?
His teacher approached me a few weeks before the concert to discuss the arrangements on the day as they would need to leave school at 1pm for the rehearsals at the arena (the show actually finished at 9pm). I sensed that he was apprehensive broaching the subject of Joseph potentially joining the rest of the choir at teatime rather than leaving with them in the afternoon.
What I actually appreciated was the fact that his needs had been considered and I was in total agreement with their thoughts in that it would be an incredibly long day for Joseph (as it would for all of the children). I wasn't sure whether his attention span would last from that point until concert finish time and for me it was the right decision in that Joseph is still included, just with slight adjustments.
On the actual day, I was worried about how Joseph would feel seeing a group of his classmates leaving on the bus whilst he was moved into another classroom. That alone might have unsettled him and have an impact on his behaviour. Yet, because of his understanding and difficulties in communication it wasn't something that could be easily addressed. I frequently take for granted that Joseph will be ok just because he doesn't say something to object or let you know how he's feeling and I felt guilty about the assumptions I had made.
When I collected him from school, he appeared to have not suffered any lasting effects of a different afternoon and I spoke to him about where we would be going that evening. Telling him he was going to the arena was likely to mean nothing but I still said it and told him we were going there for him to sing. I played Adele's Hello in the car hoping to get him in the mood and I wish I hadn't bothered. Granted, Adele is not everyone's cup of tea but anyone would have thought I had told him there would be no iPad for the rest of his life. It was as if the music was burning his ears; quite possibly was. He was tearfully shouting 'NO THANK YOU' and then changed the music to something else. It's true to say that at this point I felt a slip dip in my stomach and started to shit myself over what the night might bring once they played this at full pelt in the arena.
School had been very organised and contacted me early in the afternoon to confirm arrangements for delivering Joseph to them at the arena (another element I was concerned about) so when we arrived I made my way to the stewards to explain the situation and how I needed to get Joseph to his teachers. The initial steward understood, escorted us inside and handed us over to a colleague who was overly efficient to say the least. He told me that one of their staff would come and collect Joseph and deposit him with his school. I politely (yes people, I can be) explained that it actually wasn't going to happen that way and why would I hand over my son (with or without autism) to a stranger to escort into an arena with 5000 kids? So we walked through and I had to try and spot Joseph's group amongst a sea of faces. I still think at this point that Joseph was expecting to see Cbeebies as that is what we usually see when we go there and he usually asks to go every time we pass the building.
It was actually his classmates who spotted us first and there was half of dozen voices excitedly shouting his name and genuinely seemed pleased to see him. My heart warmed, knowing that he was accepted within his peer group. His teachers have told me previously that Joseph is very popular and everyone enjoys his company and as harsh as it may seem, I can never understand why as he's not exactly a team player. That moment for me confirmed what the teacher had told me and I felt emotional before the concert had even started. It was a little overwhelming for Joseph and although smiling at hearing his name being chanted, he almost jumped into me and I half expected us to go flying down the steps. I had a quick chat with one of the teaching assistants and left him there before I was escorted back outside to join my partner and parents.
At the point the public were allowed back in we walked past where his school were sat so we could wave at each other and he could see where we would be sitting... a very long way from where he was!
The concert was due to last two hours and I tried to keep my eye on him at all times, watching for signs of enjoyment and participation. It was extremely loud and lots of screaming so I feared the noise levels may be too much but knew that in these situations he would normally stick his fingers in his hears and carry on. There was lots of dance movements taking place and I wondered whether he was having a go as he had shown no sign of knowing the routines at any point in the lead up to it. There was a band and a group of beatboxers and I hoped that he would enjoy that as much as his own singing.
When HIS song came on, I could see all of the other children signing to it (no I haven't mistyped) and I clocked Joseph who was holding his pretend microphone, as if the song really was his. The levels of pride I felt at that moment was off the scale, I could see him bouncing up and down and was relieved that he was too far from the stage to invade it. He WAS John Farnham and I believed it too.
I know most parents that night would liked to have been closer to their children to see their enjoyment but I am certain none more than me. I wanted to soak up every little bit of that experience with him but you can't have it both ways can you? There would have been a time where Joseph would not have been considered for such an outing and even then, it would have been on the proviso of my attendance. This was just one experience that I was going to have to live through the teachers.
I also know that every parent whose child attends Young Voices boasts about what a brilliant experience it is and I agree, but for us it is made that extra bit special in that such a place and event is beyond the expectations of many people with autism.
The staff at school who had the belief and made it possible, deserve my thanks. As do his peers who continue to amaze me with their patience and their care. But without question, the biggest praise goes to Joseph, who simply rocks it.
And to end, a short clip of one of his many renditions of You're the Voice. Ignore the socks, the chipped cup, the remote control microphone, the shit football on TV in the background; feel free to send to John Farnham and don't be surprised if you are singing along to this for weeks to come.
I hope you get as many smiles from it as we do, seeing a child who struggles to communicate immerse himself in this song.