QBLOG: Laurie Berkner, my hero 5

Quentin, like so many people with autism, still enjoys TV shows and movies from his preschool days. I’m not sure if this phenomenon is because of the strong memory that so many people with autism seem to have, or if it’s just a need for the routine of what they have always watched.

For Quentin, many of his favorite things come from a TV channel called Noggin. Noggin no longer exists, but it used to be a part of the Nickelodeon family of channels, with branding that emphasized educational programming. It was also commercial-free. Instead of commercials, they showed some amazing interstitial programming – short little shows, music videos, or guessing games. All this was “hosted” by Moose (a cartoon moose) and Zee (a cartoon bird who never spoke), who sort of acted as emcees throughout the day. It was sweet, smart, and funny, and I felt confident with exposing my preschoolers to the shows on this channel.

When Noggin ceased to exist, it was a rough time in our home. The channel was re-branded as Nick Jr. (once again) and the commercials came back. Moose and Zee went away, and so did the great music videos and games. We went through a bit of a mourning period. Luckily enough, a Noggin iPad app was introduced with all the old shows. (I am convinced that someone at the network who has a child with autism was behind the creation of this app for his or her own sanity purposes. We autism parents know how to fight for what our kids need!) Quentin relies on this app and YouTube videos of random interstitial programming to keep his memories alive.

There is one star from the Noggin days that remains a star for Quentin, and that is Laurie Berkner. Laurie is a kids’ singer-songwriter with a small band. She appeared throughout the channel, on a show called “Jack’s Big Music Show” and also in the interstitial programming. She even had a whole special once, devoted to her videos, called “Let’s Hear it for the Laurie Berkner Band!” (Yes, we own a DVD of this special.)

Laurie’s songs are fun, easy to remember, easy to sing along to, and frankly, infectious. With her red mop of hair and broad smile, she has a distinctive personal ease that makes everyone feel comfortable. Here’s her music video for one of my absolute favorite songs, “Family”:

Laurie has been doing concerts for a while. (After Noggin ended, she has continued to maintain a large fan base through the internet). I had never really considered taking Quentin before, as I was unsure of his behavior. Concerts can be noisy and unpredictable – two things that can be tricky for Quentin. But then, I read To Siri, With Love, and realized that Judith Newman’s autistic son, Gus, also had this love for Laurie. In Newman’s book, she describes the concerts, her openness to autism, and I thought, hey, why not try it? In fact, I realized how many autistic fans Laurie has when I started to check out her web page. She even has a “What to expect” page for her concerts, which was developed with help from fellow autism blogger Frank Campagna, aka Autism Daddy. So this gave me real confidence to try a show with Quentin.

I dug a little deeper into Laurie’s background and found that she worked with autistic children in the past. Not only that, but her more recent videos contain many kids of different abilities. I love this video for “This is How I Do It”:

With all this info in my head, I knew I should just take a chance and go to one of her concerts, so I bought some tickets. The concert we attended was just before Halloween. I had to do a lot of prep work with Quentin, as going to this was strictly off of our regular routine and that might send him into a tailspin. I made him a schedule for the day and told him what to expect. It did, in fact, upset him at first that we were not sticking to our regular routine. But once we settled into our seats and Laurie came on stage, I got this smile, and knew that I had done the right thing:

The concert was fantastic. She played a good mix of the old hits we know from TV, but also a bunch of newer songs. The band did a lot of costume changes. There was plenty of audience interaction. Everyone gets to put their stuffed animal on their head for Laurie to admire at a certain point. And while it did seem like 10-year-old Quentin was practically an old man surrounded by the throngs of preschoolers at times (they made an adorable ‘mosh pit’ at the front of the stage), he was not the only older kid in the crowd. As it turns out, Laurie truly has her dedicated fans.

Of course, I splurged for the “VIP Meet & Greet” option, because I really wanted him to love this. (Okay, I admit it – I really wanted to meet her!) So after the concert, we got to meet Laurie and her amazing bandmates, Susie, Brady, and Bob! As we waited patiently for our turn, we realized that so many kids in the meet-and-greet also had special needs. She attracts so much of this population, that my heart grew even bigger for this musician.

At our big moment, Quentin approached the group with his photo for them to sign, and he instantly asked for all their names. Several times. This is Quentin’s thing, especially when he is unsure of a situation – he asks names repeatedly. I think of it as a coping mechanism. He asked for their names and they said them, and he repeats them back. Then, with a big smile, he held up his palm and said, “Hi,” and waved, even though he was one foot away. They said “hi” back which prompted him to run around the room, gleefully happy. Not exactly socially appropriate, but we were with an incredibly sympathetic crowd! The whole band signed his photo and asked him questions (which, of course, I had to answer for him). I got to take a few quick pictures – and some of them even have Quentin looking vaguely at the camera!

Leaving the concert that day, my heart felt so full. Then I took a look at what Laurie wrote on his photo card: “Hi Quentin!! Keep on making your music! Love, Laurie” She gets it. She gets him. Not only did Quentin have the opportunity to see one of his TV heroes, but they understood and respected him for who he is. It’s so rare to find this. Laurie Berkner is a gem, and I feel so fortunate to have experienced this with Quentin.

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