Teacher at Yamaha Music School refused to teach autistic child

It was a flute lesson he had waited very eagerly for. But when his grandparents took him to the music school at Plaza Singapura for his lesson at 8.15pm on Friday, they were told that his instructor did not want to teach him anymore.

Alex had started flute lessons at Yamaha Contempo Music School the week before. He is not completely new to the instrument - more than a year ago, he had lessons with Mr Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli, a composer/conductor friend of mine. We stopped his lessons because Zaidi had to travel on account of work, and by the time he was back there were changes in my schedule as well as Alex's that made it inconvenient to resume his lessons. Lately, however, grandma spoke to Alex and decided it was easier if he has his lessons during weekends when she looks after him. Alex was quite thrilled to resume his flute lessons and grandma enrolled him at Yamaha.He had his first lesson there. He told me afterwards how much he enjoyed it. Then came the shock cancellation of his second lesson - when he was already at the school.

Now I've never said this publicly before, but Alex, who is 12 years old, is a special-needs child: He is autistic. People who are unaware or unfamiliar with his condition might find him strange. They may not be able to communicate with him because you need to get his attention and engage him, otherwise he'll appear uninterested. You may even think he's rude or ignoring you as autistic children sometimes appear to be in their own world. Cara and I do not normally discuss his condition because we don't want any sympathy for him or unnecessary attention, but in this instance, his autism is part of the story.

He has unusual talents, though. He can identify every flag of every sovereign country in the world and name and spell their administrative capitals without the benefit of spellcheck. He loves animals, too, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of these. He once showed me a picture of an animal and asked me what it was. Looks like a goat, I said. He glowered at me and retorted: "It's a Himalayan tahr."

Because of his condition, Alex is very sensitive to sound and noise. And perhaps because of that, he's able to coax some of the most beautiful sounds out of his musical instruments. I've let him fiddle with my old violin and when he bows, it's a warm, mellow timbre - none of the jarring, scratchy noises you hear from many a beginner. And when I bought him his flute, he attained a practicable embouchure within seconds. (That's getting your mouth in the right shape and blowing through the hole in the mouthpiece to get some sound out of it. It can be very challenging for beginners.)

However, I'm under no illusion that Alex is going to be a virtuoso flautist. Before he started lessons with Zaidi, I apprised Zaidi of his condition and told him about my expectations, or rather, what I wasn't expecting: no need to make him play Bach's flute sonatas, just let him enjoy himself, if it was OK with the teacher.

Grandma had also made it clear to the staff at Yamaha that Alex is autistic and required a teacher who had the experience and ability to manage that. The teacher who was assigned to him apparently had no problems the week before.

When I arrived at Yamaha just minutes before his lesson was due to start, I saw Alex sitting in front of the reception at Contempo Music School with his helper Rizza. He looked shattered.

"They said there's no lesson for Alex today, sir," said Rizza. "Grandma and grandpa are talking to the staff."

When I got to them, I learned that the teacher had said he did not want to teach Alex because of the boy's autism. The staff at Yamaha tried to pin the fault on grandma for not responding to a call they made to cancel the lesson - at 7pm. Seriously? Cancelling a class 75 minutes before it starts?

Grandma and grandpa asked the staff to get the instructor out of the studio to explain himself, but the staff said he would speak only to grandma, in his studio.

"He is not used to talking to so many people at the time," said a Yamaha staff member. Well, he has inconvenienced so many people with one cancellation, so he'd better step out to explain himself, we insisted.

The flute instructor - a balding man probably in his 60s - eventually came out and was apologetic. However, his reason for not wanting to teach Alex was ludicrous.

"I discussed with my wife, and she said cannot teach. So I cannot teach him," he explained.

Wow. I asked him whether he was working for Yamaha or his wife. I asked the school staff (I don't think they were management staff - the bosses refused to show themselves even though we did ask repeatedly to speak to a manager) if that was a good enough reason. Little surprise that I didn't get an answer for either question.

Grandpa and grandma were very upset. Grandma had made sure Alex prepared for his lesson during the week, encouraging him to listen to the instructions of his flute instructor. Grandpa was quite furious that the instructor would do something like this to his grandson.

I asked the flute teacher when he had had his discussion with his wife and decided not to teach Alex any longer, and he said he arrived at the decision a day after his first lesson with Alex.

"And you waited until 7pm today before you made your first attempt to inform us?" I asked. And his reply was even more astounding.

"I have my reasons," he replied. That was rich. Deciding almost a week before and then informing the student - an autistic child - only 75 minutes before the lesson started. I did wonder if he was trying to precipitate a meltdown.

I'd find out that his wife is a nurse, which made his - or their - reason for not wanting to teach Alex even more baffling as a nurse would almost certainly be aware of such a condition as autism.

Then very abruptly, a man who had been observing the exchanges from a corner barged in and demanded that I leave the instructor's wife out of the argument.

I told him the wife was part of the argument because the flute instructor had cited a discussion with her as part of his decision not to teach Alex anymore. I asked the man if he had an autistic child, but he did not reply. Instead, he stood in front of me, spoiling for a fight, and insisting I stop talking about the flute instructor's wife.

He told grandma, "Are you trying to make a hassle?" I don't know what that means, but he stuck his finger in front of her face aggressively, and also announced that he was going to call the police, which I suspect he eventually did.

The flute instructor seemed quite pleased that the man - turns out it was his student - had intervened.

I told the man, who was shielded by several Yamaha staff members, to face me, but he didn't, so I called him a coward and a dog. Which may have been a little too strident on my part. And unfair – to dogs. He continued to taunt me from behind his human shield.

Grandpa and grandma were worried the matter would descend into violence, and seeing there was little else I could do, we decided to leave.

Right now I'm just horribly disappointed with Yamaha and the teacher for letting this happen. Grandpa and grandma were understandably livid, but for me, it was heartbreaking to see the look of disappointment on Alex's face when I got to the school.

I'm not naming the teacher or posting a photo of him at this time because he's an old man and I don't want him to lose his job, but I hope he is never given the chance to do anything like this to any other child again, autistic or not.

This post first appeared on the FaceBook wall of Mr Ivan Lim. You may wish to share your perspectives and afterthoughts with him on the page itself.


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I previously worked at a terrible child care center in the east