'God Plays Piano, Too'

June 1992By Brett Webb-Mitchell

The Rev. Brett Webb-Mitchell, a Presbyterian minister, is Director of Religious Life at Devereux Hospital and Children's Center in Melbourne, Florida, and Adjunct Professor of Special Education at the University of South Florida, Tampa. He is on leave from Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington.

Besides everything else going on in crea­tion, does God play piano, too? This question was met with a resounding “Yes!” after I first heard Joshua play the piano. Joshua attends a public school in Spokane, Washington. He is a cute, healthy-looking six-year-old boy who appears to be filled with high energy. But when you get physically, as well as emotional­ly, closer to him, you begin to see that there is something unique about Joshua: He is, by most assessments, autistic.

One way of describing autism is to say that it characterizes someone who is delayed in his mental and emotional development, displaying extremely structured and repetitive behavior. This disabling condition received great attention via the movie Rain Man, with Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond, a middle-aged man with autism.

Like Raymond, Joshua repeats what you say three or four times. For example, I visited Joshua as part of my job as a special educator at Whitworth College. I greeted him for a music session by asking, “Does Joshua want to go play the piano with Brett today?” He re­plied, “Does Joshua want to go play piano with Brett today?” He then grabbed my hand and led me through the doors of the classroom down to the piano room.

We took a brisk walk down the hall and through the school’s gym, where a fourth­ grade class was learning to throw a basketball. Children whispered, “Hi,” and secretly waved to Joshua as we ran over to a door on the opposite side of the gym. Plainly, Joshua was well-known in this school. In a storeroom in back of the gym in this small cinderblock elementary school is an old Baldwin spinet piano. It is brought out for musical assemblies when the gym is used as an auditorium. This dusty, cluttered storeroom is where the crea­tive moment usually unveiled itself. Joshua, seeing the piano, got excited, asking, “Does Brett want to hear Joshua play the piano? Brett does?” I answered, “Play it.” With that, Joshua jumped onto the bench, slid to the middle, threw back the wooden cover hiding the piano keys, and the transformation began.

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