Performance anxiety: We’re all been there, in one way or another. Giving a speech in front of a room of strangers (or, worse yet, peers), playing a sport in front of a crowd, or interviewing for a job can leave even the most confident person sweating, shaking, and looking for the nearest escape route. But what about practice anxiety? Especially when the thing you’re practicing is supposed to be fun?
Some context: In my non-therapist life, I play the celtic harp. Not well, and not often, but I play, and I enjoy playing. I started playing the harp in 2006, when a new friend let me sit down with her beautiful 29-string; since then, I have become the owner of my own beautiful little harp, a 26-string similar to the one pictured on the left. I mostly just play for myself and casually for my friends; the only actual performance I’ve ever done was the prelude for my college’s Baccalaureate, when people were wandering in and (hopefully) not paying too much attention to the awkward girl on stage playing the harp. This coming weekend, I will be performing with a local harp group at a two-day Scottish Games event, playing twice a day for a total of four public performances. I only know three of the many-more-than-three songs the group will be performing, and while no one expects me to be perfect (or even to know all of the songs), I went into this planning to at least know the chords for all of the songs (so that I would be able to participate in all of the songs, even if not fully perform the melodies). I’ve had the set list for over a month, and live with an accomplished harper who is more than willing to help me learn whatever I want to learn, and yet all I have done in the past month is avoid practicing and, when pushed, practice the songs I already know.
So what does this have to do with autism? As I have come up with my plethora of avoidance tactics and excuses to get out of learning the new songs, I’ve begun to see a parallel between myself and one of the kids I work with most frequently. This kiddo is highly verbal, and most of the work we do together is play-based, to help him become more confident and comfortable playing with his neurotypical peers. We pretend to be pirates, build abstract “cars” and “boats” out of LEGOS, play boardgames, talk about Transformers, put on ridiculous puppet shows, and generally geek out to the best of our preschool-aged-boy abilities. We also what to say when you want to play with someone, what to say while you’re playing with someone, and what to say when you’re all done playing with someone. The kiddo I work with is a rockstar at all of this. He can play anything I throw at him, pretend-play included (which is HUGE for a kiddo with autism– so proud of him!), and can keep a pretty awesome on-topic conversation going while doing so. And despite his awesomeness, it is a battle to get him to begin any of these activities with me, almost every single time. Once we’re engaged in playing, he doesn’t want to stop, and seems to genuinely enjoy himself, but convincing him to start playing during therapy is usually an uphill battle to start.
The kids I work with are logical and, in their own way, extremely rational. I feel as though I owe it to them as a therapist to take them seriously when they balk against my requests, and to try to figure out why they don’t want to do what I am asking them to do, especially when I’m asking them to do something that I know they enjoy and are good at. I’m not in this job to be a dictator, or to ever force kids to do things against their will for my own enjoyment.
I already had some ideas as to why my kid was so reluctant to “practice” play with me at home, but when I was practicing harp last night (after avoiding doing so for the better part of the weekend), some of the pieces began to fall into place for me. I’m sure that there’s more going on than I can put into words, but some things that I think I now understand, moreso than I did before making the personal connection:
- Play is work! I love playing the harp, but it is extremely hard for me, and doing hard things is exhausting and, often, it seems as though the energy I will need to put in might not be worth the enjoyment I will get out of playing (even though, 9 times out of 10, the enjoyment ends up outweighing the work). I forget that play can be such work for kids with autism when I am working with this kiddo, because he is so genuinely happy once he’s engaged in play, but I know he has worked hard in the past to learn all of the play skills and conversation skills that he is demonstrating, and they still do not come naturally to him (although he does a great job of making it seem like they do). Play is fun, but play is also work, and sometimes that is exhausting!
- Play is rarely as effortless as it seems. When I watch others playing harp, all I see are graceful fingers and hands; when I play, I have ten digits all getting in the way of one another as I desperately try to remember melodies and chords and timing and I’m supposed to smile and have good posture and keep my hands and arms at a certain angle and… phew! In the same way, even though playing games comes naturally to me, my kiddo has to focus extremely hard during our play, trying to do the right thing while saying the right thing while remembering the rules of the game while remembering to check in with my face to make sure I’m enjoying myself while refraining from stimming while… you get the picture.
- Play is intimidating. When I sit down to practice, even a song I have played a hundred times before, my brain sometimes gets overwhelmed with the “what if”s. What if I mess up? What if I make a mistake? What if I forget the song half way through? I can only imagine how these feelings must be multiplied for a kid with autism who has little option of avoidance and who didn’t choose to be in this situation in the first place. At least I signed myself up for this harp concert– my kiddo never asked to have autism, to have difficulty playing with typical peers, or to be expected to play in the first place!
For me, at least, the work, effort, and intimidation of playing harp during practice is almost worse than that of an actual performance, for two reasons: I know I don’t have to be doing it, and it usually is focusing on the things I am the worst at (and thus need to practice the most). True, I technically know that doing the hard things now will make them easier in the future… but that doesn’t mean I want to do them now! And that’s my supposedly “grown-up” self talking– is it any surprise that a preschooler would balk against doing something they knew was hard, if I’m doing so?
I don’t pretend to fully understand any of the kids I work with, but seeing the connections between my “practice anxiety” and their play avoidance helps me to approach the situation differently, with more empathy and patience. Just because something is fun doesn’t mean it’s easy; just because I might enjoy something later doesn’t mean I necessarily want to go through the hard parts to get there right now. I guess it’s my job as a therapist to help make those hard parts as easy as they can be, and to make the fun be as fun and rewarding as possible.
And with that, I suppose I should go practice some harp.