Bella’s World

Montserrat Turriza

I dedicate this piece to my sister, Bella. I love you with all my heart. You’re going to do amazing things in this world, in your world.
Bella’s most prized possession, a Mozart doll, lays in the center of her bed, surrounded by a small herd of Build-A-Bear stuffed plushies, American Girl dolls, and stuffed zoo animals. He lays stiff and unyielding in the throng of plastic and plush, wearing a sponge-like grey wig, and a red suit with white ruffles. When his key is turned, he plays Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, translated as “A Little Night Music.” And though intended as a light-hearted serenade, not a lullaby, its playful notes comfort Bella.

When asked about it, Bella says, “The beat is fun. The tempo is good, it starts at a medium tempo and then it gets faster!” Turning Mozart’s key, she adds, “The song is playful, it makes me imagine the next day of sunshine and playing outside. It makes me think about good moments, like having fun.”

As bedtime approaches, Bella brushes her teeth in exactly two minutes, and rinses with mouthwash, swishing from side to side. Then, she checks her room, lining up her sketch pads and pencils, making sure not one thing is out of place. When she is sure everything is where it should be, she pulls on her pony-covered pajamas, stumbling as she tries to put one foot in, then the other. Once she’s smoothed the ponies across her stomach, and pulled them tight over her legs, she trots to her parents’ room, kisses her father goodnight, then returns to her room, where she waits for her mother to tuck her in and say her prayers.

Pressing Mozart to her chest, her mother at her side, they begin, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Toward the end of the prayer, Bella opens her eyes and peeks at her mom, checking to see that all the world is in order. Satisfied, she continues, “…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.” Gently kissing Bella’s forehead, her mother tucks her in, and as ever, says, “Buenas noches, sweet dreams, I love you.”

Bella gazes at the ceiling, Mozart held tight in her arms. “I love Mozart,” she says looking at her mother, “he takes away my nightmares. He makes me feel safe and tells me I’m okay.”

Toys and broken bits of crayons lay scattered on the floor, poorly drawn pictures–purple horses, red fairies and green pigs–are taped to beige walls. Bella sits in the small, chaotic room, swinging her legs back and forth, impatiently waiting for the receptionist to call her name. To Bella, it feels like an eternity, so she passes the time by playing a round of Super Smash Bros. Two rounds into the game, she’s called. It’s then, that a tug of war between Bella and her mother begins.

“I need to finish the game, mom!” Bella yells.

“You can finish it later….” her mother breathes in, deep. “We have to go now.”

“Fine!” Bella shrieks at the top of her lungs, stomping her feet. The pictures rattle, unsettled. Folding her little hands into tight fists, her knuckles turn white.

The Raising Children Network, an Australian website that produces and maintains educational tools and resources for parenting says, “Children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often like routines and rituals and don’t like change.” For Bella, routines are necessary–she doesn’t like switching between activities or tasks, eating new foods, cancelling activities, or sleeping without Mozart tucked in her arms at night.

Bella’s doctor enters the room. Doctor Von Hahn is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.

“Hi Bella,” he says walking in with a clipboard, “how are you?”

“Well my mom didn’t let me finish my game,” Bella says, annoyed, “but I’m okay.” The doctor laughs.

“I’m sorry your mom didn’t let you keep playing, but I’d like to ask you some fun questions.”

“Ok…” Bella says, raising her eyebrows into high arcs, a look she gives when she’s surprised or offended, then she opens her eyes wide.

In the article, People with Autism Sometimes Give Ambiguous Looks, Sarah DeWeerdt writes, “People with autism have difficulty making appropriate facial expressions at the right times. Instead, they may remain expressionless or produce looks that are difficult to interpret.”

“So,” Doctor Von Hahn begins, “how is school, Miss Bella? You’re in the fourth grade now, right?”

“Uhhh…” Bella pauses, then bursts into sudden, awkward laughter. Dr. Von Hahn takes note, then laughs with Bella. After Bella gathers herself, she continues, “…it’s good, but I don’t like math, because my teacher gives me too much homework.”

Bella has difficulty with social cues, so she may say things that make people feel uncomfortable, or she may laugh at something she’s not supposed to. And while she struggles daily, with how to communicate with people, she communes with music–it eases the difficulties.

When Bella was in first grade, Dr. Von Hahn suggested she take up an instrument or listen to music, because, according to him and countless studies done worldwide, it’s an effective form of therapy. At that time, Bella learned everything through song–the colors song, the multiplication song, the Sign Language song–and continues to learn through song and music.

The Nurse Journal, a website designed for working nurses, explains music is a popular tool in autism therapy because, “it can stimulate both hemispheres of our brain, rather than just one. This means that a therapist can use a song or instrument to support cognitive activity so that we can build self-awareness and improve relationships with others.”

Dr. Von Hahn especially encouraged Bella to play in a band setting because, “the instruments must all interact with one another, but the player only needs to interact with the instrument at first.” For Bella, this is a great way to help her interact with others, and her instrument as well.

As Bella stomps down the stairs, each step growing louder and louder, she enters the kitchen groggy and annoyed. It’s early Saturday morning and her mother is not there. Instead, it’s her sister. This doesn’t sit well with Bella, because this is an unexpected change in her day. Bella’s sister notices her discomfort, and says, “Hey Bella, I made you eggs and bacon.”

Pulling her hands into little fists, Bella rubs her eyes and says, “I don’t want to eat.” As her sister washes the dishes, Bella lays on the couch, not even playing with her iPad, a rare sight.

“Bella please come here right now,” her sister calls calmly. Bella’s family knows they have to speak to her gently, careful not to raise their voices, otherwise she will feel scared, unsettled, and cry with hands over her ears.

Surprisingly, Bella listens, slowly gets up, and sits at the table. Minutes pass and Bella is close to finishing her bowl of Lucky Charms–the eggs substituted for cereal to ease her mood. Something is wrong, and her sister knows it, but she can’t put her finger on it.

“What happened Bella?” she asks. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Bella says, pushing her cereal to the side. Her shoulders slump, and slowly, she sinks her head into her arms.

“I can’t find Mozart,” she whispers.

In the article, Autism and Attachment to Objects/Toys, the author, Aoife, writes, “The reasoning for attachment to objects remains unclear, however, the general thinking is that these attachments offer comfort (especially as more textured items offer opportunities for stimming), and stability, helping to ground autists in a world (to their mind) spinning out of control.”

Bella always has Mozart nearby, so when he’s missing, it can turn Bella’s world inside out. After her mother comes home, and after hours of searching, her mother finds Mozart. Bella’s world settles.

The dings of a Nintendo game pierce the air as Bella’s sister prepares her favorite dinner–a piece of Italian bread with black beans and apple juice. After shutting the game off, Bella gets up and heads towards the piano in her light-up sneakers. Bright blues, yellows and pinks, blink on and off, their beams spreading wide across the floor.

“Bella, what are you gonna play?” her sister asks.

“I don’t know, give me a song!”
“Ok… play A Million Dreams.”
Humming to herself and bobbing up and down, the worn piano bench squeaks. As she begins the melody to A Million Dreams, her fingers dancing across the keys, her sister raises an eyebrow in awe.
“Bella,” her sister says, “I think you have perfect pitch….”
“What’s that?” Bella asks.
“It means you know what a specific note is when you hear it.”
“Does everyone have it?”
“No!” her sister says, beaming.
“Wait a minute!” Bella says, widening her eyes. “Does that mean I’m special?” Her sister nods. Jumping up and down, covering her mouth and giggling, Bella squeals, “Yaaaaay!”
In her article, Perfect Pitch: Autism’s Rare Gift, Marina Sarris writes, “People with autism have a heightened ability to perceive details but struggle to compile information together into a larger whole.” Like Bella, other people with autism have a “tendency to focus on parts – a single tone, in this instance – rather than the whole,” this is perhaps why Bella has perfect pitch and can pick out notes. Finishing the song, Bella slows the melody down, moving her body to its swell and folds.

Popcorn crunches, candy bags open, and soda is slurped. Bella and her family enter the theater to see the film, Abominable–Bella’s pick. Sitting between her mother and father, Bella reaches into a bag of Skittles, picking out only the green-apple ones. After finishing the green-apple ones, she plunges her hand into the bag for the red-cherry ones. After that, she eats the rest of the flavors. Soon, the movie begins.

Bella, unsettled, looks up at her mother and asks, “Mommy it’s too loud, can I have my headphones?” Her mother puts the volume-control headphones over Bella’s ears.

Half-way through the movie, sad music fills the theater, and tears run down Bella’s face. She looks for her mother’s hand to hold, and her father’s arm to rest on. The moan of a low cello mixes with the high notes of a violin, falling, collapsing, then lifting, creating feelings of ascension, tension and release. Bella leans into her mother.

“Breathe in, then out. In and out,” her mother says in quiet whispers. Bella breathes. Cries. Breathes. No one in her family understands why Bella cries when she hears sad music, they think it might be because she feels bad for the characters, or that she’s mining their feelings, imitating them, but her parents don’t know, because Bella can’t tell them why.

According to the article, Music Evokes Emotion in Children with Autism, Andrea Anderson writes, “Children with autism struggle to understand social and emotional cues from other people’s actions or words: that is one of autism’s cardinal features. These same children respond to music, however, understanding emotions conveyed through non-verbal musical cues.”

Weeks later, snuggling on the couch, her mom asks Bella why she cries at sad music. Bella says, “Because it feels like it’s not a happy place, and sometimes I feel left out of the world, and it’s kinda gloomy.” When pressed, she adds, “I mean, I’m not a baby anymore, but the world feels like it’s rumbling, and I’m not solving the problem.”

She turns Mozart’s key, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik begins to play. She continues, “The problem is, it’s turning into a whole hurricane, and it’s not going to be solved. And if I get into the hurricane and sadness arrives, aw, man… But if I calm myself, it’ll stop.”

Her mother stares at Bella, she is both shocked and impressed by her daughter’s ability to feel deeply. And, she does not miss a beat–she’s learned to simply let Bella feel, to be, assuring Bella all the while that, “everything is alright,” and that no matter what, “she’s safe.”

Bella understands emotions differently. It’s that, and her deep connection to music, which allows her to express and better understand her feelings.

Weeks later, Bella sits at the piano, her light-up sneakers dancing their rainbow colors across the floor. She moves her small fingers along the piano’s keys, playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, then, My Funny Valentine.

In time, she works her way into A Million Dreams. Finally, and slowly, she plays Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, each note trailing off deeper and deeper into the night… into the distance that separates Bella’s world from everyone else’s. But too, building a small bridge between the two, note by note, with emotion that is both expressed and understood through music.

It is nearly bedtime, night fills the room’s windows, stars dance in the sky. Bella’s mother kneels next to her bed, still puzzled by the “problem” Bella mentioned some time ago.

“Remember,” her mother asks, “when you talked about the hurricane and how you can’t fix the problem? Well, what is that problem?”

“The problem is that everybody is looking at me,” Bella says. “I get really nervous, and then I get mad.” Bella reaches for Mozart; she pulls him tight into her chest, and winds his key. I don’t wanna have big reactions,” she continues, “I can’t control myself… sometimes things will not be the way I want.”

Holding Mozart with one hand, and her mom’s hand in the other, Bella smiles as the melody to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik begins to play. When the song finishes, Bella’s mom asks her why she loves music, why she loves Mozart. Bella says, “Because music is happiness. Sometimes there’s sad songs and I cry, but music is still happiness.”

Montserrat is a student at Berklee College of Music, majoring in Music Education. Montserrat’s inspiration for this piece is her nine-year old sister, Bella, who has mild autism. It is Montserrat’s hope that people better understand autism, and that they’re just like rest of us, just swirling in their own, special world.