Midway through his teens, Will Swartz realized that borrowing someone else’s voice could help him find his own.
Last weekend, the 16-year-old boy with the dark blond hair sat down at a piano in Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute and played the opening chords of the beloved 1967 standard, “What a Wonderful World.” Suddenly and startlingly, the great Louis Armstrong’s famous and distinctively gritty rendition came from the mouth of this white kid in the three-piece suit.
The impression was so convincing that it was tempting to look around the Mount Vernon conservatory to find the hidden stereo. Later, Swartz said he had realized last summer that he could modulate his own voice to sound like the jazz legend.
“It opened up opportunities for me to share my inner musical self,” said Swartz, adding that he’s working on adding Elvis Presley’s gorgeous growl to his repertoire.
That was just one of many revelations of the inaugural sensory-friendly concert mounted by the Peabody and the Annapolis-based advocacy group, The Musical Autist. The organizations joined forces to put on a concert where everyone is welcome — musicians and audience members who are on the autism spectrum, and those who are off it.
Autism is a neurological variation frequently accompanied by behaviors, such as vocalizing to the music, that aren’t well tolerated at classical concerts, theatrical performances or film screenings. As a result, audience members on the spectrum are often effectively barred from many performances. The Musical Autist is at the forefront of a movement to change that; the advocacy group’s two mottos are “equal access to the arts” and “hand flapping allowed.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism is characterized as a developmental disability. Typical behaviors of people on the spectrum include focusing deeply but narrowly on a particular topic, a heightened sensitivity to light and sound, delayed language development, difficulty reading non verbal cues and repetitive movements. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism occurs in between 1% and 2 % of the population.
“A typical concert is a quiet, sit-still event,” said Kerry Devlin, a music therapist on Peabody’s staff and a Musical Autist board member. “There are so many rules to follow. You’re not supposed to clap between movements or before the soloist is done performing. You’re not supposed to walk up towards the stage or vocalize during the concert.”
Autism advocates thought that was a shame, since studies have shown that audience members on the spectrum often possess musical abilities that greatly surpass those in the general population.
In 2011, Musical Autist co-founder Christy Joy Shiloh devised the idea of a “sensory-friendly concert.” Not only would these events showcase musicians who were on the spectrum, they would provide accommodations for autistic audience members.
People who felt overwhelmed by loud sounds in the middle of a concert could retreat to a quiet room outfitted with blankets and a therapy ball, or put on noise-muffling headphones. People who needed to be in motion when hearing music could wave colorful scarves, dance in front of the stage or squeeze rubber toys.
Most important, the performers would learn to accept unusual behaviors from audience members who might, for example, want to curl up on the floor beneath a piano to feel the instrument’s vibrations.
“We are not working with people on improvement therapy or to try to normalize them,” Shiloh said. “We want to help them lead quality lives.”
Peabody Associate Dean Sarah Hoover said it’s increasingly crucial for professional musicians to learn how to make their concerts accessible to a wider population, so she wanted the event to include an ensemble of students who aren’t on the spectrum themselves but who could be trained to interact with audience members who were. After a round of auditions, the slot went to Peabody’s Bulliet Trio: Ellen Gruber (oboe), Yoshi Horiguchi (double bass) and Mafalda Santos (cello).
“Today’s concert is a great way of why I love my job,” Hoover said at the event. “We plan to offer these sensory-friendly concerts every year.”
The three graduate students began the concert by telling funny, personal stories and lingered long after the event had ended to chat with audience members and demonstrate how their instruments worked.
“I started playing the oboe when I was 12,” Gruber told the audience. “And for years, my mother told me I sounded exactly like a duck.”
In the eight years since The Musical Autist was founded, other arts organizations have taken their cue from the advocacy group to add sensory-friendly events to their lineups ranging from live theater performances to art museum visits to special movie showings. But for people on the spectrum, it’s the concerts that matter the most.
Studies have provided data backing up “the savant syndrome” depicted in such popular movies as the 1988 Oscar Award-winning “Rain Man,” which featured a character with the uncanny ability to count hundreds of objects in an instant. Many people on the autism spectrum possess an exceptional skill in areas such as math, art or music that’s out of proportion to the level at which they function in other aspects of life; some researchers have described it as “islands of genius.”
The exceptional attribute that seems to occur most often in autistic populations is the ability to distinguish between extremely similar musical frequencies. According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, “superior pitch discrimination is arguably the most replicated peak of ability in autism.”
The relationship between autism and this particular island of genius is complex, at least partly because most studies to date have involved fewer than 100 participants.
On the one hand, not everyone on the spectrum is gifted at distinguishing pitches, while some people who are not autistic excel at this task. On the other hand, superior pitch discrimination occurs far more frequently in people on the autism spectrum than it does in the overall population.
For example, University of Montreal researchers tested 40 autistic people and 38 people whose brains developed typically for the 2015 study. They found superior pitch discrimination in more than four times as many subjects on the autism spectrum as they did in those who were off it (23 versus 5).
Meanwhile, scientists are conducting research aimed at figuring out how a capacity for enhanced pitch develops.
“The answer may be related to fundamental differences in how different aspects of sound are processed and represented at the neurophysiological level,” researchers wrote in a 2009 article published in the scholarly journal Neuropsychologia.
One leading theory suggests that people on the spectrum have “enhanced perceptual functioning.” A 2006 study out of the University of Montreal suggests that the areas of the brain that process sensory input are so highly developed they take precedence over other forms of learning, such as language.
Another theory first advanced by the British researcher Uta Frith in 1989 speculates that superior pitch perception might be one manifestation of a trait that’s a hallmark of people on the autism spectrum — a heightened capacity to grasp individual details and a resulting inability to see the big picture.
These studies fascinate researchers because they “may hold a clue to some of the genes involved in autism and, more broadly, to how the human brain develops,” Marina Sarris wrote in 2015 for the Interactive Autism Network at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “Understanding the musical abilities of the autistic brain also may point to potential therapies.”
That’s no surprise to Sunny Cefaratti, a musician on the autism spectrum who co-founded The Musical Autist with Shiloh.
Cefaratti’s parents discovered their little girl had perfect pitch when she was about 4 years old and hummed a song she’d heard on her music box in the exact key in which it had played. Sunny’s older brothers quickly learned that when the baby was fractious, winding up the music box immediately calmed her down.
Music still helps Cefaratti, now 33, find her voice. When she has something important to communicate, she often reaches for a record. Earlier this month when two close friends were temporarily felled by illness, Cefaratti played Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.”
Something in the song’s lyrics about the importance of persevering in the face of obstacles resonated with her on that day. And it helped the people around Cefaratti understand she was feeling sad.
“Music is a universal language,” she said. “I can say things with music that I don’t have the words to say for myself.”
If you go
Baltimore area arts venues are beginning to offer more sensory-friendly performances for people on the autism spectrum. Below is a partial list of some upcoming events:
Movies: The AMC Theatres offer several sensory-friendly performances each month at which they turn up the lights, turn down the sound and encourage moviegoers to dance and sing. The next showing will be for the movie, “Hellboy” on April 23. See amctheatres.com theaters, prices and show times.
Music: The Musical Autist will hold its next empowerment jam session, or music-making opportunity, in a coffee shop-like setting, at 5:30 p.m. May 9 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Donations accepted. For details, visit themusicalautist.org.
Theater: Imagination Stage, a children’s troupe based in Bethesda, offers sensory-friendly shows for each performance with glow sticks and a pre-performance visit. Next up: “The Ballad of Mu Lan” at 11 a.m. July 21. Tickets cost $12-$25 and are refundable until the show begins. imaginationstage.org.
Visual arts: The Walters Art Museum will hold two-hour sensory-friendly events at 4 p.m. July 27 and 9 a.m. July 28. They will include sensory break areas and art-making opportunities. Free. For details, email email@example.com, or call 410-547-9000, ext. 300.