Autism Interview #94: Elizabeth Boresow on Music Therapy and Friendships

Elizabeth performing at “Evening with the Rents.”
Photo credit: Brandon Parrigo

Elizabeth Boresow is a a board-certified music therapist, writer, direct support provider, and Autistic advocate. She regularly uses her experience as an individual on the autism spectrum to both serve and educate others about autism acceptance. This week she shared her experience working as a music therapist, her introduction to stand-up comedy, how she found friendships in college, and the need for more services for adult autistics.

Do you currently work as a music therapist? 

Yes, I currently work as a music therapist. I run a music studio that provides both music therapy and music lessons to individuals in our community. 

What does your professional day look like?  — > What does your work week look like?

Well, every single day is different, which keeps things interesting. But from a week-to-week basis, things look a lot more similar.  With the population I serve, most of my music studio work happens in the after-school hours, so I have found other work opportunities to fill in the rest of my time.

Sundays I work in the afternoon.  I am a direct support provider for a young adult on the I/DD waiver, which is part of the Home and Community Based Services part of Medicaid. 

Monday in the early mornings I often do direct support work for another young adult on the I/DD waiver.  I do odd jobs in the day time if I have them or I run errands. In the early afternoon, you can often find me planning sessions for the week and cleaning instruments. After school I work with students. I just finished up a comedy show, so I used to rush off to rehearsals every Monday night, but that is over now, so I can just finish taking my notes about the students I saw and call it a day.

Tuesday mornings I have lunch with a buddy I’ve had for the past 6 years through a local school district’s Youth Mentor Program. Tuesdays I also do work for people using the I/DD waiver and then see students after school.

Wednesday mornings I do a lot of the paperwork involved with running a business – think invoicing, reconciling bank statements, going to the bank to make deposits. I also take care of some of the more physical and hands-on tasks like keeping the studio and instruments clean. I see students Wednesdays after lunch through late afternoon and I lead worship music for a small group worship service. 

Thursdays I see morning students – some are adults and some are young enough that they don’t go to school yet. Then I do a music enrichment group for a local day program for adults with developmental disabilities and see students individually after school.

Fridays I tend to keep open for tasks that didn’t get complete and make up sessions. I often fill this time in the day and evening serving people on the I/DD waiver.

I don’t usually work on Saturdays, so that’s really nice.

What types of clients benefit from music therapy? In what ways?

There are a lot of types of clients that can benefit from music therapy. I tend to work with people with developmental disabilities supporting needs in the communication domain. Many clients are referred to me because they love music, although being musical isn’t necessary for a client to benefit from music therapy. Music therapists are trained to use all the different components of music (some of those are speed, loudness, “busy-ness” of the music, instrument type, etc.) to address non-musical goals (like turn-taking, memory, emotional expression, pain management, and many others).

While I work in private practice seeing a lot of clients on the autism spectrum, there are music therapists in a variety of other settings using these different components of music to address more and varied goals. For example, there are Board-Certified Music Therapists working in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, hospice & palliative care agencies, school systems, psychiatric facilities, correctional facilities, and more. They can work with other professionals as well addressing goals like gait training (re-learning how to walk), academic skills, coping skills, procedural support in hospitals, reality orientation, and much more. You can read about what we do more at musictherapy.org – the web site for our professional organization, American Music Therapy Association.

Describe your awareness of your diagnosis and how you’ve learned to adopt a positive autistic identity.

I became aware of my diagnosis in late elementary school. My parents sent me to a camp for kids on the autism spectrum in middle school, and it was really neat to see that I wasn’t the only one who was “different.” It was something I could remember as I went back to school. I knew I felt drawn to other kids in special education, but I had to go visit them on my own because I didn’t need modification of course content. I ended up in mainstream and advanced courses while others were kept in resource rooms and special education classes. I feel fortunate that many subjects came naturally for me. I was an early reader and found comfort in silent reading when speech was so hard.

In high school, I had adults at my school working with me so that I became comfortable describing both my strengths and challenges and that factored in a lot to developing my identity of being autistic and that having strengths. They didn’t say I was autistic – but I knew it was integral to my experiences. One thing I know how to do is see the positives and the potential in others. Perhaps that’s what makes me so comfortable around “different” – I see the good things that come from diversity, especially disability and all the different ways people experience being autistic. In college I joined a student group focused on disability and that solidified and helped me better articulate how I felt about the disability community.

Did NPR approach you for their All Things Considered feature? Or did you approach them? What was that experience like?

Yes, I got an email one day from Connor Donevan asking if I would do something for National Public Radio. I was trying to figure out if it was another spam email or if it was real, but I have some friends that listen to NPR, and they assured me it was real. So I responded to him, and it was a great experience. We emailed a bit and then had a good phone conversation where I learned that he was friends with one of the guys who worked as a desk assistant in my dorm, which is how he found out about me. I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with him about my experience and learn about James a little.

Then the actual recording experience was strange – I had a friend kindly bring me down to KCUR (which is our local NPR) because I am not comfortable driving in that part of town. I was in this room all by myself that was soundproof, and I got to talk to James for the first time. It was a lot like a phone call, but the KCUR people explained that it wasn’t exactly the same as the technology was different, which is why it sounds much more clear. James and I spoke for about an hour, with Connor facilitating our discussion. I think my favorite part of the experience was the follow up I got a bit after from Connor that said James had gotten involved with his dorm – I identified a lot with him and that piece of advice that I gave him during our talk, finding community where you are, it helped me quite a bit when I was in college. So I felt glad that James was able to make those connections.

What did your high school or college peers do to help you feel comfortable in social settings that might otherwise have been stressful?

In high school, my peers invited me to things. I wasn’t good at initiating things, and I probably wouldn’t have had friends if they didn’t ask me to do things with them. For that I am so grateful. I had a mindset that wasn’t wrong back then, but has matured a lot since then. I used to want to make connections around mutual interests or activities. So they would choose something I view as boring (like shopping), and I would just say no. Now I’m more apt to say yes, not because I like shopping, but because I value time with people more than the activity in which we engage.

My friends have done a lot of learning of some of the nuance around my communication. My middle and high school friends learned to finger spell so we could communicate if speech wasn’t working well for me. They knew I didn’t like strobe lights, so they minimized them (there were a lot of dance parties), and if they were going to use them, they let me know so I could wander away from them for a bit. Also, they gave me a lot of rides because my sense of direction was nonexistent.  In college, they let me be me – not drinking but still at the drinking parties. They also kept inviting me to stuff. I found I made a great Designated Driver. It meant I had a great excuse not to drink, I didn’t actually have to go into the bar, and everybody was more than willing to hang out with me when they got back (since I was so nice that I drove them). My friends in college helped me by explaining a lot of things to me – why jokes were funny and who was who because a lot of people always look the same to me. They kept a great attitude about the fact that it took me a few months to get names right. I have some great stories about mixing people up or thinking two different people were actually one. 

What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocates make?

One mistake is that they focus so much on advocacy around childhood that we don’t have appropriate supports in place for emerging adults. 

Another mistake is not listening to the voices of people on the spectrum. While we may not always be the gentlest in our tactics, the information we have is important and can help advocates.

Sometimes, the mistake of advocates is speaking before listening.

Sometimes, it is asking the wrong questions.

Finally, one of the greatest mistakes is that NT advocates too often place the burden of creating change on autistic adults. For example, I’ve been trying to impress on our local community the need for an autistic adult support group for those of us with autism and additional mental health conditions. I can’t even tell you how many times a well-meaning NT advocate has said “oh, you would be perfect to lead that” when what I’m asking for is for someone to take charge and care because those of us who are advocating get tired.

I think NT advocates often forget that autistic adults have limited spoons.

Who is your greatest ally and why?

Elizabeth and her mom

My mom. She has worked so hard over the years to impress on me the importance of communication. She taught me that communication between two people should have a win-win: each person should walk away feeling they gained something. That message has helped me to navigate a lot of tricky social situations and has helped me make and keep friends as well as allies. She pushed in school for the IEP team to use my strengths and not just focus on the things I couldn’t do. She helped my dad learn what it meant that I was different. I’m 29, and she’s still willing to explain things to me without talking down to me. I’m taking my own path in life, and she supports me and encourages me along the way. I am so fortunate to have her as my mom.

How did you become involved in stand-up comedy?

I served on the Board of Directors for Camp Encourage, a local nonprofit providing overnight camp experiences for youth ages 8-18 on the autism spectrum, from 2014-2018. Even before that, I had been volunteering with the camp about since it started in 2008! Camp Encourage shares an office space with a speech-language pathology practice called New Balloon. Their owner, Keenan Stump, also volunteered at Camp doing the campfire band. So I got to meet him through that. One day the campfire was inside due to extreme temperatures, and there was a piano there, and I just sat down and joined them. Later, I got to know him more and we worked together (with another SLP and a professor of Occupational Therapy) on adding a new chapter on serving adults with ASD to an already-existing textbook published by American Occupational Therapy Association as it was being revised. So after our first brainstorming session, Keenan was talking to me in the parking lot and posed a question about performing at a stand-up comedy event. I’ll let him tell the story (it’s in the first five minutes of my comedy set). 

I had already known about and attended as a volunteer raffle-ticket seller at this event because it’s a fundraiser for Camp Encourage. But basically Keenan, several years ago, came up with the idea that parents who have kids on the spectrum have all this great material, and it’s a shame nobody gets to hear the funny stories. So he and his business partner, Matt Braun, worked to start a stand-up comedy event benefiting Camp Encourage. Traditionally, parents got up and told funny stories about navigating parenthood when you have a kid on the spectrum. It was a fun, cathartic and relatable event – not making fun of kids on the spectrum, but really making fun of parents and just the situations that come up.

So I performed in March 2017 and was the first autistic comic to join the “Evening with the ‘Rents” event. I had a great time, and since then they have always incorporated autistic comedians. Since parents had been the primary performers and the show is called Evening with the ‘Rents (short for parents), I worked hard to make my set about my parents, and I worked to make my set not just funny – but informative about my perspective. For me, it’s helped reframe how I look at some of the challenges I encounter (like being perceived as sketchy because I jump in the check-out line at stores each time the scanner makes a noise) as opportunities for material for a new set.

Want to check out Elizabeth’s first performance? You can view her routine here:

And here:

A high school feature on Elizabeth from 2013

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1 Comments

  1. Reply

    Oh my goodness this!; “Finally, one of the greatest mistakes is that NT advocates too often place the burden of creating change on autistic adults. For example, I’ve been trying to impress on our local community the need for an autistic adult support group for those of us with autism and additional mental health conditions. I can’t even tell you how many times a well-meaning NT advocate has said “oh, you would be perfect to lead that” when what I’m asking for is for someone to take charge and care because those of us who are advocating get tired.

    I think NT advocates often forget that autistic adults have limited spoons.” thank you as I always felt like a failure when people asked me but I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t do it even if I suggested it and thought it was a good idea. In the past I’d try more and then have to quit…
    this was a great interview and I’m new to this site so this my first to read. I’m glad I took the time. Sounds like a great life you lead.

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