“I was floored. I was so proud of him.”
Liretta Krayse, grandmother of Elijah Pretlow
Just about anyone would be floored watching their shy grandson stand up in front of an audience and sing so beautifully. But there’s more to the story than that.
Elijah, who lives with his grandmother in Norfolk, is on the autism spectrum and suffers from Crohn’s disease. He’s largely homebound, and Liretta says they’ve struggled to find activities to keep him entertained. She says Elijah, who’s in sixth grade, loved the music classes, which ran this fall at the Portsmouth YMCA. Families of Autistic Children in Tidewater (FACT) has partnered with Arts for Learning’s professional teaching artists for the three-year Arts Adventures residency, funded by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation.
Arts for Learning’s Cindy Aitken led the classes. She’s worked as a teacher for decades using drama, music, and movement to engage students and was honored as A4L’s Teaching Artist of the Year in 2011. This was the first time she worked exclusively with students with autism, and she called their growth during the residency “fantastic.”
“Most students didn’t even want to sing at first. They didn’t recognize that voice is an instrument, or that clapping their hands, tapping their hands on their legs, all are instruments. We did use actual instruments as well, but I taught them that they’re able to create their own music at any time of the day and in any place, really. By the end, we had a soloist, we had all the students singing, we had all the students participating with tambourines. It was just really exciting to see the growth.”
From the early sessions to the time Elijah became that soloist was a gradual process. Like most of the students in the program, he was quite shy initially and didn’t talk much. But one day, Cindy mentioned what a smooth voice he had when he spoke and said she’d love to hear him sing.
“And he said, ‘Oh no, no. I don’t sing.’ And his grandmother said, ‘Well, you sing around the house,’ and he said, ‘I don’t sing around other people.’
Cindy had a clever response that made sense to Elijah.
“‘I said, that’s okay. I’m not really a person. I’m just a teacher, that doesn’t really count, right?’ And he goes, ‘Well, that’s kind of true.’ And I said, ‘I’m kind of like your grandmother.’ ‘Well, that’s kind of true.’ ‘And I said, repeat a line for me.’ So I sang something like, ‘hey, hey, how are you?’ Something not intimidating. And he turned around and sang, ‘Hey, hey, how are you?’ And I said, ‘Oh my golly, you really have a voice.’”
At that point, Cindy told Elijah she’d like to work with him on his voice whenever he felt comfortable. Sometimes he’d want to, and other times he wouldn’t. “I just didn’t ever push. It was completely up to him,” Cindy says.
Around the halfway point of the residency, when Cindy walked into the gym where classes were held, Elijah jumped up and sang, “Hi, Miss Cindy!”
“There was something very opera-like the way he sung it. And I said, ‘Oh my golly, Elijah, that was fantastic. You have such an opera voice—I can’t believe it.’ And he started laughing and smiling, and the way he did it, it sounded like Ave Maria, like that kind of smooth flow to it.”
From there, Cindy gave Elijah an arrangement of Ave Maria to practice at home. She became concerned when he missed class for several weeks and discovered his family was having transportation issues. She picked up Elijah and his grandmother to take them to class, and while riding in the car, he was “singing up a storm.”
“That was the catalyst that helped him feel comfortable singing in front of his peers. And then once he practiced singing in front of his peers, he felt comfortable singing in front of others.”
The evening of the showcase, his grandmother wasn’t sure he’d go through with it.
“When the program began, he was like, ‘No way. I’m not getting out there,’” Liretta says. “And then, bam, he’s singing! It was so loud and clear, and he sang some of the other songs, too. I was just so proud of him.”
Elijah Pretlow wasn’t the only student who made his family members proud that evening. In fact, there was another Elijah who participated in the residency too and made his family proud at the showcase event, as did all the other students who “performed and informed” what they had learned over the course of the twelve weeks.
“That showcase was completely written and performed by them… it was all student driven, which I really loved,” Cindy says. “It was wonderful!”
The Arts Adventure residency is completely free for participating students. Scheduled for the fall of 2023, the third year of the Arts Adventures residency will focus on visual art. It will again be open to middle and high school students with autism, as they explore different types of visual art, practice new life skills, and learn with their peers in a supportive environment. We look forward to another wonderful year in our partnership with FACT!