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Promoting Understanding and Unity Through Neurodivergent Friendly Activities

By Sander van der Velden, Grade 11
Promoting Understanding and Unity Through Neurodivergent Friendly Activities

(Photo source: Sander van der Velden)

On January 26th, I supported the co-founders of the UNIS Hanoi SCO Neurodiverse Families (NDF) Support Group, Sarah Devotion Garner and Nguyen Van Hieu, in organizing a bilingual concert that demonstrated accessibility practices in collaboration with IMAGO WORK and UNIS Hanoi high school music teachers and students, as part of the first face-to-face Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC) conference held on campus. Colette A’Bear, the high school music and choir teacher and theater manager, who was instrumental (pun intended) in ensuring the event went smoothly, said, “The performing arts are special because they offer an opportunity to audiences to connect with their own feelings and bodies. The special thing about Saturday was creating that connection.”

We were lucky to have a wonderful roster for the concert. The APAC Dance Troupe performed “Melange,” Sooa Lee  played “Czardas” by Vittorio Monti on violin, Benjamin Price-Thomas played two pieces by George Gershwin on piano, “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm,”  Kiran Nguyen sang, and Winston Wu played piano for “California and Me” by Laufey,  Colette A’Bear, Benjamin Price-Thomas Ben, and Chaeyeon Park, led a rousing version of Một Con Vịt with audience participation, and the secondary school concert band played “Drums of Saamis” by Samuel R. Hazo and “Fire Dance” by David Shaffer.

The inspiration for our collaboration came from an experience of Sarah’s 14 years ago. While she was out of the country, her five-year-old, who had yet to be diagnosed with ADHD, attended an evening school concert, climbed onto the very B10 stage she and Hieu stood upon on Saturday, and danced between songs. At a party a few days later, a faculty member sternly told how inappropriate her daughter’s behavior was and how inadequate her parenting was. After that, she became very anxious and controlling at any group events and concerts for fear of further judgment, which robbed her family of a lot of joy. Being able to share with other parents that there is space for everyone’s child at a concert to participate, whether on stage or in the audience, is something she would not have considered many years ago. It was her privilege to share her own radical dreaming, healing, and joy with the conference attendees, members of the UNIS Hanoi community, and IMAGO Work students and their families, and experience their joy in return.

Why is this important? 15 percent of the world might be neurodivergent. In a school of 1000 students, that's at least 150 students, 20 or more faculty members, and 200-300 parents. Not all neurodivergent students are in learning support, and not everyone is comfortable advocating for their needs. Live music performances, including at school assemblies, can be challenging for students with ADHD, autism, or sensory processing disorders. In order to prepare for the event, IMAGO staff created social stories for their students (Vietnamese and English), and the trip to UNIS included not only the concert but a tour of the canteen and library to see where some of the IMAGO students intern. IMAGO staff and SCO NDF met online with the student performers and shared with them about neurodiversity and understanding their audience to make events more inclusive. During the concert, the performers demonstrated a variety of more sensory-friendly and interactive ways to hold a concert, concluding with audience members joining the performers onstage to explore the instruments and make new connections and friendships. Scott Harbin, a secondary school music teacher and the concert band director said that it was much easier than he expected “to add visual warnings to his conducting,” and making the performance easier for all audience members was “well worth it.”  He “really enjoyed the experience, particularly meeting some of the IMAGO students afterward and hearing how much they enjoyed the performance.” One of the musicians, Rohan Joshua, told me that it “was a very eye-opening, inspiring, and unique learning experience for me as a band member. To be able to interact with, and to be able to perform for the students from IMAGO, has ignited my understanding of the community as a whole.”

Kristen Thomas of IMAGO WORK said, “[the UNIS] performers were engaging and welcoming to our students after the performance. I think students and staff are hopeful for future collaborations, specifically for our students to join the UNIS students in showcasing their artistic and musical talents.” A’Bear also said that “the possibility of future collaborations with IMAGO is exciting, and promises to develop into some more powerful moments, both here in our Unis community, and for our Neurodiverse Families in Hanoi.” I agree with her sentiments, and I hope we will hold similar concerts in the future with both UNIS and IMAGO performers.

The author has made translations of the article available:
Tiếng Việt/Vietnamese


Sander van der Velden is a Grade 11 student and SENIA Youth Board member.

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