Learning and growing alongside my child, a musician on the autism spectrum

My name is Pat Murray, and I am the 64-year-old single mother of a 33-year-old autistic son. This Autism Acceptance Month, I find myself reflecting on our journey together. For a kid who was never invited to a birthday party growing up, he has now found his place in a new community: music. It changed his life. And mine.

When Spenser was 2 months old, I knew he was special; I thought he was blind. You see, he would stare at the mechanism on the baby swing that I would place him in while I was working around the kitchen. There was a fan over top of the kitchen island, and sometimes an hour would go by without him ever taking his eyes off of it. But all of the older mothers in my circle would say things like, “Oh, he’s just a boy… checking out the engineering of it all.” But I was not reassured.

So one night I brought him into the emergency room because I had worked myself into a frenzy, convinced that he couldn’t see. In fact, once there, I had six resident doctors convinced, too! But then one young doctor took a tissue, twirled it up into a fine point, and slowly brought the pointed end towards his eye. He blinked, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Nope, not blind.

At around 7 to 8 months old, I was convinced he was autistic. There was just something in the way he would look at me from his highchair. I would spread Cheerios across his tray and would watch to see if he could manage the Pincer grasp… a milestone his older sister had reached by that age. I can’t remember when he conquered it. But I do remember his father saying that I was just overthinking everything. It is very common for parents of “Aspies”(short for Asperger’s syndrome) to struggle with coming to terms.

There are so many painful memories from Spenser’s childhood, but probably the most excruciating one was when I went into the school to shadow him for a day. His kindergarten teacher had informed us that she was concerned; he was not socializing “normally.” And so, I spent the day watching him from the corner of the classroom. No one played with him. Then, while sitting in the library that afternoon, I watched him coming back from the stacks with a book he had found. A table of little girls in his class saw him coming and screeched, “Spenser germs! Spenser germs!” They scattered as he passed by. His eyes met mine and then he quickly averted them. He pretended it hadn’t happened. There are too many examples like this to recount.

Spenser was diagnosed with ADHD in seventh grade. I had taken him to six different child psychologists, and he was eventually prescribed Ritalin. Following his doctor’s advice, we inadvertently over-medicated him, and he developed Tourette’s symptoms. It was terrifying and heartbreaking. 

I could literally write a book on ADHD by then, but it wasn’t until later that year, after we had moved from Kingston to Toronto, that I heard about Asperger’s syndrome. He was diagnosed with it about eight months later. I enrolled him in Asperger’s social classes at the Child Mental Health Clinic, and we went every Wednesday night for role-play for three years.

For his birthday that initial year, we bought him a drum kit, and his life changed. All of a sudden, he was excited and motivated to do something other than play video games. We got him lessons, and he bonded with his teacher.

And then, he started to build a different circle of friends: musicians. He joined one band after another and became sought-after for his musical skill. It was the greatest thing I had ever witnessed.

Becoming a part of ASD Band through Jake’s House has had the most tremendous impact on him. 

The filming of their feature-length documentary, ASD Band: The Movie, was a fantastic experience for him and has brought him and the band to some very special places across North America to perform. They were featured on Canada’s Got Talent, and many other top-tier media outlets. Their second album is about to be released on all streaming services (so stay tuned for that!).

Through the band, Spenser has learned so much about who he is, and why he does the things he does. He is researching his uniqueness, and he is beginning to celebrate his wonderful eccentricities. The community of Jake’s House and ASD Band have allowed me and his sister to better appreciate him, and we have formed a deeper bond with him. We love him so much and we are working hard to help him navigate the world. But mostly, thanks to his association with the band, we are learning to better navigate as a family.

Pat Murray is the mother of Spenser Murray, an energetic drummer with an affinity for punk rock music who happens to be on the autism spectrum. Watch ASD Band: The Movie or follow the band on Instagram and TikTok.

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