David Lamb, 20, paces in the small music room at the Samford Academy of Arts as board certified music therapist Sunny Davenport plays the piano. When she stops to turn to a new song in the old music book he brought, he stops, too, waiting for the music to begin again. It doesn’t take long.
Sunny starts a more upbeat tune. A slight smile pulls across David’s face. He paces again, speeding up to keep up with the beat.
This is his reward.
When Sunny finishes the third song, she slides off the piano bench and onto a nearby chair. David positions himself in front of the piano and begins to play. He has been practicing to curve his fingers in order to reach distant keys and play smoothly, fighting the natural tendency of his fingers to straighten. Today, his hard work has paid off.
“That was the best you’ve ever played that song,” Sunny says, gently. “Just awesome.”
David has autism, a condition characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and communication. He is currently non-verbal but he can communicate through sign language, handwriting, pointing to an alphabet communication board, and using a communication app on his iPad or iPhone. If you ask what he most likes about his piano lessons, he says it’s when Sunny plays.
It’s programs like these that David’s mother, Angie Lamb, finds priceless. She chose to homeschool David, and turned to the Autism Society of Alabama (ASA) and other organizations to find programs in the area that would help David reach his full potential.
“The Autism Society of Alabama is oftentimes the first place a parent or caregiver will call,” says Melanie Jones, the organization’s executive director. “We help them navigate the service delivery system and connect them with a support network in their area.”
Angie created a color-coded graph on her iPad that outlines the long and varied list of activities David has participated in through the years – horseback riding through Special Equestrians, football camp at the ARC of Jefferson County, and art class at the Exceptional Foundation.
He also enjoys sensory-friendly movies hosted by ASA.
The programs resonate differently for participants, but the benefits have a lasting impact, which Angie refers to as a synergistic effect. “Because of adapted piano lessons with Sunny, David plays the piano in the Autism Society of Alabama’s yearly talent show at Camp ASCCA,” she says. “And he can dismount his horse at Special Equestrians and volley a tennis ball at Greystone YMCA because of the upper body strength that he developed over many years at Legacy Gymnastics.”
They may seem like small steps, “but they are all huge because it means that David can remain a part of our family and remain a part of our community,” Angie adds. “That’s because the Birmingham area has created a nurturing environment.”
ASA and other organizations that work with families affected by autism continually strive to build a society that truly values these individuals for their unique talents and gifts. Protective Life is a corporate champion of this mission by supporting special needs organizations and programs including ASA, the Exceptional Foundation, Special Equestrians, and Glenwood Inc.
“These organizations serve as that inclusive and accepting community and provide what our broader society is still striving to achieve,” said Protective Life Senior Counsel William L. McCarty, who also serves on the board of directors for The Exceptional Foundation.
That broader society approach is the goal of National Autism Awareness Month in April, which aims to go beyond promoting autism awareness by assuring that each person with ASD is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life.
To show his thanks, David regularly writes hand-written notes to ASA and its supporters, an effort that earned him the society’s President’s Award presented at the annual Autism Shines Gala.
When David pens a thank-you note, he takes his time with each cursive letter so that his penmanship is nearly perfect. “Thank you for coming to my piano lesson!” When he finishes signing his name, he sits back in his chair. Angie gently touches his back. To her, every accomplishment is a gift.
“My goal in all this – to make him as independent as possible and comfortable being in the community,” she says. “I think I’ve accomplished that.”