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Confronting autism and bullying with a clarinet

Heather Rudow March 18, 2013


Barry and Mano playing the clarinet.

As a resident in counseling, Grace Kolman knew many of the steps to take when her daughter Emmanuela — Mano for short — was diagnosed with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in 2011. But she never anticipated incorporating her husband’s passion for music into a treatment plan that has resulted in a dramatic improvement not only in Mano’s emotional symptoms but also her overall mindset.

The Kolmans — Grace is a counselor at Specialized Youth Services of Virginia and a Ph.D. candidate in counseling and supervision at James Madison University, where she is also a substance abuse specialist, while husband Barry is a professor of music at Washington and Lee University —started getting treatment for Mano as soon as she was diagnosed with ASD at 11-years-old.

But the treatment wasn’t successful right off the bat.

“Before we knew it, she was seeing a neurologist … who thought she had a problem in her cerebellum,” recalls Kolman, a member of the American Counseling Association. “She also [started taking] medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but it did not help at that time.”

On top of everything else, Mano was being bullied at school and was feeling a sense of loneliness as a result.

But Barry’s passion for music and Mano’s opportunity to play in the school band would soon lead to a positive and unexpected outcome.

Barry, who is also the music director for the Shenandoah Symphony Orchestra, plays the clarinet, and Mano decided she wanted to learn to play the instrument for school.

“[Mano] has a close bond with her dad,” Grace Kolman says. “And now that she is in middle school, music has come up as a way to make her feel better about herself because she can be part of the school band.”

As Barry spent nearly four months teaching Mano how to play the clarinet, Grace decided to investigate how the learning process was affecting Mano’s emotions and behavior.

During that time, all three kept journals about the experience. Most of Mano’s entries were drawings, but she would also come to Grace and talk about how she was feeling.

“She expressed lots of frustrations about finding it very difficult [to learn to play the clarinet],” Grace says, “but never used the words ‘give up.’”

As a result of her clarinet lessons, Mano has become much more confident and is better equipped to ward off any bullying she may face, according to Grace.

“Before, she would look down at herself, even with all the encouragement we offered her,” Grace says. “She needed to do something to prove to herself that she was capable, not just a child with a label. She is more aware of who she is now. She feels proud of herself, and most important, the fact that she is engaged in an activity that is so specialized makes her feel special and gives her strength to look at the bullies at her school as kids who need more help than she does. She will come back home crying sometimes because some kids will move out of the table in the cafeteria when she sits to have her lunch, but then she will remind herself that she plays in the band and she is part of a team.”

Grace expected Mano, now in sixth grade at Shelburne Middle School in Staunton, Va., to learn to regulate her emotions and reduce her angry outbursts at home as a result of learning how to play the clarinet. And, indeed, that happened.

“What I did not expect to benefit from music was her socialization skills,” Grace says, “and the self-esteem that she developed during this process. It was definitely a plus.”

The experience taught Grace firsthand the therapeutic powers of music and the ability it has to bring children together.

“After her first weeks at school [playing in the band], Mano came home with a large smile on her face saying, ‘I’ve got an ‘A’ in band! Mom and Dad, are you proud of me?’” Grace remembers. “This brought tears to my eyes because I am always proud of Mano. Her path is challenging, but she will be successful in the end. Now she is in the school choir even though she has speech problems. But she tries so hard that I am sure she will be one of the best performers at school. Music making helps Mano to find meaning in her life, something that wasn’t there before. Mano would call herself stupid, ugly or weird. I have not heard that since the clarinet lessons and band experience.”

Grace has also noticed positive neurological improvements in her daughter.

“Recent studies suggest that music and language are processed in the same area of the brain,” Grace notes. “Mano has some deficits in her verbal communication skills, and since she started the clarinet lessons, I’ve noticed a substantial improvement in her speech, socialization and confidence in her ability to succeed in a very unique task.”

The Kolman family’s experience resulted in the paper, “Autism Spectrum: Emotional Regulation Through Clarinet Lessons,” which Grace and Barry presented at the Virginia Counselors Association Annual Convention in Fredericksburg in November. During the presentation, Barry talked about his experience teaching Mano and with journaling; Mano discussed her experience learning to play the clarinet and her journal entries; and Grace discussed the connection between music making and neuroplasticity. At the end of the presentation, Barry and Mano played a duet.

“It was very sweet,” Grace says of the father-daughter performance.

After experiencing the power of music to change the brain, Grace Kolman recommends that counselors who work with clients with ASD and their families invest in music. “Have the patience to understand that the most important [part of] the process is not how perfect they perform but how good they feel about being part of a group or being able to do something so meaningful and different,” Kolman says.

In addition to learning more about music’s impact on the brain, the Kolmans have strengthened their relationship with their daughter in an unexpected way.

“My relationship with Mano has always been wonderful,” Grace says, “but now we are working together to advocate for kids like her.”

Inspired by the experience with their daughter, the Kolmans are in the process of developing a manual about teaching music to children with ASD and other developmental disorders. They are also engaging fellow parents in the discussion about bullying and how to address it in a more positive way.

An important point Grace Kolman wants to make to parents, counselors, school counselors and music teachers is to “not lose track of what these children can do and to avoid focusing on what they cannot. We are trying to open a discussion about diversity in public schools that includes children with disabilities [while encouraging] parents to be advocates for their children.”

Kolman says it is not so important that she is an expert in ASD but rather that she is a “mother who deeply cares and understands what it is to be different. I have been working with children, adolescents and families for almost 20 years now, both in Brazil [where I used to live] and in the United States, and what I’ve noticed is that if you can find a way to see beyond the ‘problem,’ then you are on the right path. Just ask yourself what this kid can do. Think outside the box. Believe!”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


  1. pooja joshi

    Great insights. I wonder if individuals with Autism are more right brain oriented and hence respond better to non-linear or creative stimuli.
    Thank you.
    Pooja Joshi, MA, LPC, NCC

  2. Kathy Williams-DeVries

    I too have Aspergers and if it wasn’t for my clarinet I probably wouldn’t be alive today. Only problem was I was only diagnosed last year at the age of 36, after decades of misery and misdiagnoses of bi-polar, depression and borderline personality disorder. I think the most relevant line for me in the article was about not losing track of what a person can do which I am currently working through with my therapist. I can’t work a normal job, but I’m hoping to earn money out of my website. I spent so many years hating myself for not achieving my goals when all the time I never worked out which goals I could achieve. So many years of round peg square hole.

    1. Grace Kolman

      I wish you well, Kathy! You sound like a strong woman and your story is as inspirational as Mano’s.

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