Asif and Ashton’s love of music first brought them together eight years ago, and they have been best friends ever since. Every lunchtime at Sense Centre Streatley, they sit together at the piano to play and sing their favourite tunes, occasionally they dance, and always they will increasingly collapse into fits of giggles and laughter.
This might seem a very natural way for two mates to hang out together, but sadly friendships like this are not that common amongst people with complex disabilities – especially if they have sight and hearing impairments. It can be hard enough for someone in this position to communicate with a sighted and hearing person, let alone someone who also has complex communication needs. This means that their strongest relationships will often be with the staff that support them, and with family members.
Asif and Ashton have different challenges, but work well as a team. Asif is blind and has autism, although his hearing and speech is good – and he also has an amazing memory for songs and tunes, amongst many other things. Ashton has cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy and is not able to speak, although he does make some sounds and vocalisations. “He very much likes music, especially certain songs,” says Karen Abrahams, who is Manager of the centre. “When he heard Asif playing for the first time he went over and sang and their friendship grew naturally from there.”
After lunch at the centre, Asif and Ashton will sit down together at the piano and Asif will pick out some tunes on the keyboard and sing along – Ten Green Bottles is a favourite. They then they start a call-and-response conversation of grunts and sounds that starts as musical, becomes banter and then descends into mutual hilarity, with them both guffawing and snorting with laughter. This shared sense of humour is one of the things that brings them together.
“They look out for each other,” says Karen. “They think about each other when they are at home and their families are delighted about their friendship. When Ashton is away on holiday Asif asks when he will be back, and if Asif has been away Ashton can’t wait to come in and see him again. They clearly love each other as friends.”
Asif and Ashton don’t spend all their time together, and will attend different sessions throughout the week. This is partly because Asif has a strong sense of looking out for Ashton, but can become overloaded because of his autism and sometimes needs a break from their interaction. “It’s like any normal, healthy relationship,” says Karen, “you want to spend time with your friends but you also need time away from them.”
Sense Centre Streatley near Luton offers a wide a wide range of stimulating learning experiences to 26 individuals who have a wide range of physical and learning disabilities. As part of this, the staff try to support people to develop friendships naturally. One of the ways they have tried to encourage this is by people being in small consistent groups, where they have more time to get to know each other and build up trust. “For example, there are two young men in the education classroom,” says Karen, “who have begun to link up and one of them signed `my friend’ recently.” Also, Asif and Ashton’s friendship has offered a positive example and others have wanted to be part of it. “They are quite lively and it bounces off on the other students,” says Karen.
“They see the friendship that they have and they want that for themselves too. It’s an instinctive thing.”
After the lunch break Asif and Ashton go on to their separate sessions, but meet up again later in the music room. Asif likes to choose music from the Echo device, and since Ashton is about to go home Asif says: “Alexa, Ashton is going home, play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which is Ashton’s favourite tune. Then they hug before Ashton heads off.
They’ll meet up again tomorrow for more music, friendship and a lot of laughs!