The Music of the Spheres

Colin, our son with autism, fell into crisis at his brother’s birth—throwing more tantrums than ever, waking up at night, ignoring the usual comforts from us, and even refusing to eat. Such scenarios are common enough for children when new siblings arrive, but Colin’s singular reaction was a deep descent into his obsession with spheres, spinning, and the planets.  

Picture your two-year-old doing this:  He spins a basketball on the kitchen floor and paces in close orbits around the spinning ball, while naming off the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and so on, always in order from the sun out to Pluto. He repeats this ritual as long as you permit it, keeping the ball in continual motion until he’s soaked in sweat.  He ignores our enticements with other games, doesn’t want anyone to join in or interfere with him, and when we have to force him to stop, he tantrums with such sobbing despair, we feel like we’re taking away his last hope. As soon as we turn our attention for a moment, he’s back at it again. The behavior recurs for a week, and then subsides.

See video of Colin’s one-handed spineroo:

Colin’s love of all things spherical appeared early—balloons, marbles, raindrops on car windows, balls, seed pods from the backyard sycamore tree, and green walnuts encased in their roundish outer shells. A toy with a series of wooden shapes, meant to be threaded on pegs according to size, held no interest until the donut shaped disks were set in motion. At first he would drop one of the disks on the hardwood floor to watch it wobble until it came to rest. He put his face as close as possible to the wobbling disks, his eyes squinted closed, one ear pressed down on the wood floor to amplify the sound. It wasn’t long before he discovered the donut shaped disks could be set spinning and in that blurring motion become spheres. Standing a disk on end, he gave it a quick twist between his thumb and forefinger and watched it spin to full life and shape. The dexterity and precision of this surprised me in a two-year-old. I encouraged him. Once I caught on to what he was doing, I started doing it for him, spinning the disks quickly, one after the other, until the blue, red, yellow, green, and purple disks were all spinning at once. Colin was entranced, but with that one experience—addicted. He wouldn’t let me stop without a fit. He learned to spin better and better by himself, but would beg us to spin the disks for him. No amount of time was enough. Tantrum followed tantrum when we inevitably became bored and refused to continue. We finally had to hide the toy in the back of a closet. But there were always plenty of circular things to spin and turn into spheres: coins, the brass lids to mason jars, and music CDs were all stood on end and spun.

Then came the fateful day when he discovered the Moon and the planets. He received a gift, one of a well known series of baby videos, this one featuring spinning tops, mobiles, galaxies, swirling clouds, rings, and—of course—the planets. He would have watched the video non-stop, every day, for weeks, if we allowed it. After this, anything spherical—a tennis ball, jewelry bead, or piece of gravel—became one of the planets or moons. Colin’s first spoken word was star, pronounced “Stahhh,” soon followed by moon, and the names of the planets, each listed in its order from the Sun, the way he had learned them from the video. Any nine spherical objects could be lined up in order and named as planets. If a sphere happened to be red, it was Mars, pronounced “Maws”; if it was blue, Neptune; if it was small, Pluto.

After Colin discovered the solar system, the pool balls at my parent’s home soon played their proper part. He liked to have ten balls in spin at once—the cue ball as the Sun, the teal-colored number 2 ball as Neptune, one of the striped balls as Saturn, and seven other balls taking turns as the other planets. We’d find him sitting cross-legged on top of the table with a ball in each hand—the other balls all around him spinning at declining rates. Removing him from this spinning world brought on a tantrum every time. No other toy could entice him away. When his grandfather bought him a toy truck, he turned it upside down to better spin the wheels, no motor sounds and pushing the truck around as expected. He went back to the pool balls. The spinning was all. The motion. The spheres.

Once when Colin was breaking a sweat at the pool table after twenty minutes of continuous spinning, my father noticed that when Colin started each ball on its orbit, he often named the planet or the ball color and number and whether it was solid or striped. Later, when Colin was upstairs, away from the pool table, my father asked him, “What color is the number 2 ball, Colin?” “It’s Blue.” “What about the 12?” “Purple.” “Does it have a stripe?” “Yes. A stripe.” And on he went, asking Colin about the half dozen balls he could remember himself. Colin answered immediately: number 8, black and solid; number 1, yellow and solid; number 15, red and striped. Then dad went downstairs to check his own memory of the other balls. Colin knew them all, locked in his mind like he was looking at a picture.

Musica universalis, music of the spheres, Wikipedia tells us, is “an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets,” not literally music you can hear, but a mathematical concept. Something about the spherical planets spinning in their elliptical orbits around the Sun and the dozens moons and rings of ice and rock in their smaller orbits around the planets, the swirling bands of atmosphere on Jupiter and Neptune, the vast turning of the entire Milky Way galaxy, the beauty of the patterns and colors—something about all this brings peace to Colin’s mind. He returns to it again and again for comfort, and, ironically, for grounding. After a tantrum or a long day away from home, he’ll return to the familiar music of these patterns. If he doesn’t have his usual toys, he’ll cobble together a Solar System out of whatever is at hand—pine cones, Hoola Hoops, croquet balls, beads, hole-punch confetti, M&Ms, Cheerios, dandelions, spare change, balls of yarn, scrunched up scraps of paper or tissue, even washcloths soaked and forced into a sphere.

Colin never tires of describing the Planets. He’s compelled to talk, not just to himself alone, but to someone. He implores your attention, though not too much interaction or questions, just enough to know you’re listening. He’ll say, “My daddy, I will tell you about battered Mercury,” and he’ll have the same look in his eye that I once saw on my 14 year-old brother’s face when he talked about The Rolling Stones. I had been away at college for the better part of three years. I visited home for a weekend and found myself listening to my brother wax on about Mic Jagger and Keith Richard, the concert at Altamont, the death of Brian Jones. I half listened until I saw the imploring look, his wide-open eyes, his insistence, pleading even, to be heard, as if he were uncovering a long buried secret. Something I saw in his eyes stopped me in my tracks. You will listen to this kid. You will listen as long as he wants to talk. It’s this same intensity and the contentment on Colin’s face that carries me through hundreds of recitations of movie scripts and book fragments about the planets, about galaxies, even about spherical fruits and vegetables.

Now forward two years: Colin is four years old and almost two years into his Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program to treat his autism, and still he’s spinning things and talking about planets. His ABA therapist is adamant about extinguishing this behavior: “This must stop!” she says. We go back and forth with her on this. How do we distinguish genuine interests from harmful behaviors? It’s not always so easy. Obsessive and repetitive spinning, yes. An interest in space and the planets, not so sure. She urges us to push him toward the typical interests of normally developing boys his age—toy cars, balls (for playing catch, not spinning), transformers, etc. I see her point. Colin needs common ground with his peers. But it goes against the grain to suppress a wholesome interest he has chosen for himself. Though we work hard to control the obsessive extremes, we choose to let him nurture his interest in the Planets if chooses to. What right do we have to take it away? And would it even be possible?

There are times we doubt our decision.  One of his gifts for his fourth Christmas was a short, 30-minute DVD called The Planets narrated by actor Patrick Stewart and with music from Gustave Holst’s symphonic score inspired and named for the planets. Colin watched the movie twice during the day. That night he couldn’t sleep.  I found myself listening to a long monologue of repeated phrases from the new movie. My four-year old was doing his very best Patrick Stewart imitation, complete with the precise King’s English accent and clipped, emphatic style.  “On Mars dust storms ravage the entire planet!” “Mercury has an iron core,” “The outer solar system is the realm of ice worlds and gas giants!”  With such facts and phrases, Colin mixes bits from other favorite movies like Peter Pan or Finding Nemo. Between phrases he hums a few bars from the Gustave Holst soundtrack, using exactly the same fragments that rise out from the narration in the movie. The facts and music and stories warp into a strange manifestation of Colin’s exhaustion and his fears. Venus with its “raining sulfuric acid . . . Could the same thing happen to our home world?”

“Are the planets scary, Daddy? . . . Some say he [Peter Pan] comes through the window. Will Mars come through the window?”

 “No buddy,” I tell him, “Mars will NOT come through the window!”

It’s three in the morning. I’m exhausted and frankly terrified at how Colin’s thoughts chase him into the night. He can’t stop the rush of images and facts. Several times he puts his face right up to mine, his eyes wide open: “It’s Mars!” as if the planet had just burst through the window. It’s finally too much for me when Colin says, in his Patrick Stewart voice: “Now for a procession of Saturn’s larger moons . . . Titan, Mimas, Tethys, Hyperion, Dione, Rhea, Enceladus, Phoebe, Iapetus . . .” I have no idea about the names of Saturn’s moons, and it seems impossible to me that my four-year-old son could know. I panic and leave the room, pacing the hallway, listening to Colin’s continuing chatter from the next room. It’s as if he’s speaking in tongues. I find the New York Times Almanac and look up Saturn. He has the moons right. He actually knows them. It makes the hair on my neck stand on end.

I’ve never taken all this as a prophetic sign that Colin is destined to be a NASA scientist, though more than once, he has approached strangers in restaurants or grocery stores to announce: “Hi. My name is Colin and I’m going to be an astronaut,” or “Hi. My name is Colin. I’m going to fly to Mars.” What I am quite sure of is that, at some level, this love for the planets, will persist, even years from now when he acquires other compelling interests—girls, politics, or perhaps golf—he will return to the spinning orbs like a familiar refuge to calm his mind. I’m convinced he hears or sees something unique to his particular sensibilities, something that identifies him as much his fingerprints or the pattern of creases on his palms. Though after that Christmas night my wife and I take great pains to lead him to other interests and control access to the planet movies and books, neither of us tries to extinguish the interest entirely. Like the wide and deep network of a tree’s roots, his obsession may connect to countless other things we can’t know.

Video of Colin talking about the planets:

Forward another four years: At eight years Colin still falls into the “planets obsession” every few months: Sometimes a day or two of renewed interest when he happens upon a book; other times a full-on obsessive descent—carrying his space books with him wherever he goes, chattering facts right up to the point of sleep, at school, in the car, and interrupting conversions with space factoids. When I walk in the door after work, he races to greet me with a hug. Then launches in: “My Daddy, You know what? You know what? You know what?  . . . The bright scars on Jupiter’s moon, Callisto, testify to a long history of impacts,” or “there’s a dark, Earth-sized, oval storm cloud on Neptune, which astronomers call the Great Dark Spot,” or “the toxic atmosphere of Venus is mainly comprised of carbon dioxide, with some sulfur particles and sulfuric acid also present,” or some other verbatim quote from Clare Gibson’s Handbook of Astronomy.  While in the grasp of the obsessions, he can’t talk about anything else. Once in an effort to shift his interest, I asked to borrow his Handbook of Astronomy and he readily agreed. As I walked out of the room, he called out to me: “And remember, Daddy, the solar system is on page 53,” and indeed it was.

When Colin’s obsession gets too bad, we hide the DVDs and books in a closet or in a plastic storage container under our bed. My wife tells him: “The books aren’t gone. They’re just having a rest.” And he usually accepts this. Still, in those periods of controlling his intake of space information, I’ll find a dictionary or almanac opened to the page on the planets or space. You can’t hide every book after all. One of the hard truths about autism is that parents must always be vigilant, because any interest, any activity can become a compulsive behavior, an obsession. My wife, who spends the most time with Colin, says she can never leave him on his own for long: “I have to keep him interacting. Ask him about what he’s doing. Try to enter his world and draw him out. Or he’ll just withdraw within himself.” And I would add: his current labyrinth of information. He shields himself from the world with a buffering layer of facts and fragments he collects and recites. The planets make music for him that others can’t hear. Motion and memory. The spinning, the order, the names, the structure, the predictable systems—it calms him, filters the deluge of human information raining down on him—complex facial expressions and voice inflections, sarcastic teasing, instructions from teachers and parents, nuanced rules of play and fairness. In the planets he finds a lost home. And if he’s not immersed in the planets, it will be something else—colors, numbers, gems and minerals, birthdays, the states, the presidents, the names of relatives and neighbors and schoolmates, Star Wars characters, brands of candy bars, dog and horse breeds, national flags, exotic fruits and vegetables, street addresses, phone numbers, and city maps. These things create a refuge for him. It’s a matter of survival.


When I was eight years old, my family moved from one side of Portland, Oregon, to the other, a distance we could drive in a half hour. But, for me, it was as if we had moved to a different country. In our old neighborhood, I had friends on every corner. I was one of them, even the leader of the pack. The kids in the new neighborhood couldn’t have been much different, but they all appeared as giants and geniuses to me. I struggled to find a place. So I found refuge in something I had paid no attention to before: my parent’s monophonic records of classical music. In that first year at the new house, I read one book about the great classical composers so many times that it started to fall apart in my hands. Like Colin with his planets, I took refuge in a mountain of information I couldn’t begin to grasp. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756 and died in 1791. Robert Schuman crippled his right hand with a mechanical device intended to enhance his virtuoso skills as a pianist. Claude Debussy spent entire days writing a handful of notes. Like Colin, I could rattle off facts for hours.

Once I started taking piano lessons at nine, I learned enough about music theory to pretend to write my own compositions. I was no Mozart, but it was elaborate pretending.  I followed keys and time signatures. I copied and recopied these compositions until the pages were free of errors and smudges.  Then I’d bind them in construction paper covers and tie the pages together with strings of yarn. Etude in A Minor, Opus 3, by Steven L. Cantwell. You get the idea. I even wrote orchestral fragments with parts for various instruments, from flutes and French horns to violas and cellos. No real melodies, but chords and strings of notes that at least fit what I knew of music theory and looked like a musical score by Johannes Brahms I found in the library. I mimicked it and called it music.  I had latched on to classical music like a lifeline. I obsessed the most with Beethoven. Something about the isolation of his deafness, the way he was said to roam the streets muttering to himself, making notes in cafes, working all night, living in his inside world.

In the fourth grade, when the teacher allowed us to bring a record of choice to class, most kids brought Beatles albums. I brought Beethoven’s Symphonies 1 and 2. After that, the kids called me Beethoven as a nickname. There were days I forced myself not to smile so that I would look more like the somber portraits of Beethoven. I turned into a different kid.  All those hours in front of the monophonic record player with one ear pressed up against the speaker—entirely absorbed, blissed out. I don’t know how else to describe it.  I kept the volume low so I could listen to the same piece over and over. This obsessive behavior must have alarmed my parents.  I remember concerned looks and a few smirks and rolling of the eyes. It’s probably no coincidence that my elaborate manuscripts are nowhere to be found. Still, my father and mother and the neighbors bought me classical records. My cousin Vicki and her fiancé took me to the Portland State library to pick out whatever music I wanted to hear. A close friend of my father gave me a book about transposing musical keys with a note that said, “To a future great composer.”

A few weeks ago I woke up with Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony playing in my mind. Not just a snatch of it, but long elaborate passages, one connecting to another. This memory is the relic of those years between eight and ten, when I obsessed over classical music in the way Colin loves the Planets. I had played this symphony on my parents’ phonograph a hundred times. And so now, 40 years later, the music is still there.

About slcantwell25

A writer focused on the transforming power of memory, autism, parenting, and the ways we know what we know.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Music of the Spheres

  1. Esther van Niekerk says:

    hi there I have just read your blog, my son, also autistic is nearly 4. His obsession right now is also the planets and the solar system and spinning stuff. Great to read about yours. We live in South Africa.

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