Partnerships broaden the horizons of VIA students and clients. They help build connections to community, and provide social, educational, and vocational opportunities that can be rare for people with autism to experience. One such partnership has grown into a special way for a VIA student to develop skills, engage with learning, and make a meaningful connection.

In the spring of 2019, Elizabeth (Ibby) Roberts, faculty member in the UVA Music Department and Principal Bassoonist and Director of Youth Education with the Charlottesville Symphony, toured VIA as part of a plan to develop sensory-friendly concerts for special needs students. Later that fall, before the pandemic, VIA students participated in one such concert, and enjoyed time with members of the Symphony and their instruments through the Preludes school visit program.

On the initial tour, Ibby met I___, a student in VIA’s Bridge classroom. They immediately hit it off. Their first conversation showed her that he had a deep knowledge of and interest in music. On two return visits in early 2020, before the pandemic, Ibby began to explore ways that music instruction could enrich I___’s life and expand his opportunities. She recognized that he has ‘perfect pitch’ – the ability to name any pitch that is being played.

The pandemic cut short their plan to continue those early visits, but since the fall of 2020 Ibby and I___ have been meeting virtually two times per week. I___ is developing his ability to read music, to understand music theory, to conduct basic beat patterns, and to clap rhythms. They relate music to other subjects as often as they can, and they work from materials that Ibby creates, from music theory books she owns, and from websites that are in the public domain.

I___’s Instructor, Jeff McCutcheon, points out that these music sessions provided valuable incentive to keep I___ engaged with learning when services were remote. “He works at a high level with the material,” says Jeff, “and it’s paid off in other academic areas.

“Working with beats and rhythms, he is using fractions, and applying math skills to add/subtract those fractions. His conversation skills have grown exponentially. I___ is listening to the material and asking questions to gain further information. He has even shown an increase in speech articulation.”

Family Resource Navigator Hilary Nagel expresses VIA’s gratitude for this extraordinary opportunity: “Ibby’s work with this student has been a lynchpin in keeping him engaged and learning for over a year now,” she says. “We are so grateful for her tireless encouragement and instruction. This has been so highly motivating for him. We’ve really never seen anything like it.”

According to Ibby, “music is a language that I___ clearly already experiences on a deep level, and that serves as an enjoyable and enriching part of his life.” That recognition is the source of her commitment: “I believe we all need to look out for each other and do our part to enrich each other’s lives,” she says. “We crossed paths, and somehow stepping up to the plate for him just feels like the right thing to do.”