A small amount of background is required to define the starting point for this study. In 2004-2005 I conducted Masters level research based on my twenty year practice in music composition and production, specifically addressing the collaborative practice and musical outcomes of working with a physical theatre company. Through reflective practice and by drawing on the experiences of others in similar positions, my thesis (Webber, 2005) identified a number of areas where the practice was weak or “atypical”, particularly in face-to-face communication and sometimes “inappropriate” musical responses to the emotive content of scenes. It pointed to some areas where unexpected or surprising musical responses occurred and were successful in juxtaposition to the drama. As this research was reaching its conclusions, a young family member was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and as my wife and I began to understand his diagnosis, we also became aware of how the description of the “disorder” fitted my own personality, strengths and weaknesses and sensory issues. I was diagnosed myself early in 2006 at the time when I was beginning to search for a suitable topic for a Doctor of Musical Arts thesis.
Asperger’s Syndrome (AS or Asperger’s) is dealt with in detail throughout this document, but briefly, it is a pervasive developmental condition on the autism spectrum of disorders and is characterised by impairments in social functioning, problems with verbal and/or non-verbal communications, and disturbances in thinking and behaviour including narrow and obsessive interests, inflexible thinking and deficits in empathy. Sensory disturbances and hypersensitivity are also common. Given the findings of my Masters research and possible explanations for the problems encountered in my daily life, it became very clear that I could not examine my musical practice any further without gaining an understanding of the impact of the condition. The more I and my supervisors considered it, the clearer it became that any exploration that involved my reception, perception, thinking, feelings, and communication of music must be informed by such an understanding.
Basing itself primarily on the OECD definitions, (OECD, 2002) the Australian Research Council defines research as “the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies and understandings” (Australian Research Council, 2009, p. 10). Certainly exploring the world of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome and its impact on an individual life generates new knowledge for the individual and for the research community, as Asperger’s is a relatively recently defined condition. There is a growing number of books written by “Aspies” a term coined by Liane Holliday Willey (1999) and frequently used by people with Asperger’s Syndrome to describe themselves – that trace personal journeys through the trials of misdiagnosis, prejudice and personal identity, such as Pretending to Be Normal (1999), Wendy Lawson’s Life Behind Glass (2001) and others (Grandin & Scariano, 1985; Schneider, 1999) or address the impacts on partners, family and workmates (Fleisher, 2002; McCabe, 2002). Voices From the Spectrum (Ariel & Naseef, 2006) is a collection of essays by parents, siblings, professionals and people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), and I have also recently contributed a chapter for another forthcoming collection from Jessica Kinglsey Publishers editied by Josie Santamuro. These are books written for the lay person, the general public and those affected by Asperger’s, either themselves or by proxy. There is also significant interest in the sociology and psychology communities in the “insider perspective”, and it was a journal article titled What can we learn about autism from autistic persons? (Chamak, Bonniau, Jaunay & Cohen, 2008) that clarified the value of a focused study of an individual’s experience in specific circumstances. Here was an article by respected researchers directly calling for such studies and suggesting that the observations of autistic persons have a significant place in understanding of Asperger’s and Autism, and may even influence the diagnostic criteria itself.
The methods of exploration I have chosen highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the topic and target the insider perspective as strongly as possible, combining techniques of narrative autoethnographic writing with music and audio composition, systematic self observation, video recordings, interviews and personal communications to build a detailed picture of a life lived. Autoethnography must also relate the personal to the cultural (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, p. 739), to explore, observe, describe and evoke, such that the reader gains an understanding of not just the subject and their place in the world and the universe, but their own as well. It is the ultimate empathic gift. Which, as my story will reveal, is somewhat ironic.
While Said defined the concept of the Other in relation to cultural difference (Said, 1979), the concept has been around in literature since Plato. Recent writers have examined the idea in relation to topics closer to hand, such as cognitive Otherness (Hallam & Street, 2000) and the way we engage with and speak for others in narrative discourse (van Pelt, 2000). Asperger’s Syndrome, as mentioned above, is characterised by “differences” in sensory reception and perception, processing, thought patterns, emotions and communication. It therefore is relevant to provide as much as possible a glimpse into my “world” or reality through the presentation media itself. In keeping with Richardson’s suggested criteria for assessment of narrative text a) substantive contribution b) aesthetic merit c) reflexivity d) emotional impact e) expression of a reality (Richardson, 2000, p. 254) and further development and exemplars by other researchers (Denzin, 2000, p. 262; Ellis, 2000, pp. 273-276; Piercy & Benson, 2005), I have chosen to present the data, the raw materials of investigation using what Piercy and Benson call “aesthetic methods of qualitative representation” (Piercy & Benson, 2005, p. 109), as autoethnographic text, music and sound sculpture, lyrics and filmed discussion, with the aim of encouraging an evocative engagement and interpretation on the part of the reader (Denzin, 1997). Indeed the format itself has been instrumental in drawing associations within the data.