A recent study by the Center for Disease Control showed that autism affects up to one in 100 children. The condition presents itself in three main forms: autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. Symptoms can range from severe, including mental retardation and delays in language and development, to empowering, such as savant qualities including photographic memories and synesthesia. Although autism causes social deficiencies in all that are affected by it, it also creates some of the most fascinating minds imaginable. I am fortunate to be one of those who is high-functioning enough to verbalize the experiences unique to autistics.
The effects of my form of Asperger’s Syndrome are very noticeable: I do not make eye contact during conversation (I see no point in the gesture and find that watching the speaker’s mouth is more worthwhile towards understanding them), jokes and sarcasm often go over my head, and I am extremely clumsy. I refuse to wear anything besides cotton (everything else itches), I do not eat anything green, and I am bound by a strict daily routine, which, if strayed from, results in incapacitating anxiety attacks. I cannot tie my shoes, nor can I tell time on an analog clock. While my deficiencies are abundant, my abilities are even more astounding. Though I fail in social interaction and conversation, I am one of the most gifted in a different field: music.
I was born with several qualities of an autistic savant: I can identify any note by its letter name, a phenomenon known as absolute or perfect pitch, and I have synesthesia, which, simply put, means that I also identify notes, chords, and instruments by colors and shapes. For instance, while C is blue and smooth, E is pink and rigid. While a Cdim7 chord is dark purple and sharp, Ebdim7 is yellow and fuzzy. While my affiliation with notes is interesting, the most fascinating aspect of my abilities is my connection to musical instruments.
My first experience with an instrument was at about two months of age, when my father introduced me to the piano. Home videos show me experimenting with the notes and dynamics of the keys. My formal training began at age four with piano lessons, and I had already learned four instruments (besides piano; recorder, harmonica, and xylophone). I thrived in the art of piano and continued experimenting with elementary instruments until the age of eight, when all the third-graders received recorders. I had naturally already mastered the instrument and performed “Amazing Grace” as a solo at my concert. The next year the band instruments were passed out, and I selected flute. I was one of the youngest accepted into the Gold Band, surpassing the Silver Band before I could play a single concert. In the fifth grade I was presented with a piccolo and began studying it as I had my previous instruments. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was playing ten instruments proficiently, ranging from oboe to bass guitar. In the three years between eighth grade and eleventh, I have learned fifteen more instruments, expanding my knowledge to the brass and orchestral string families. I’ve even learned the ukulele.
This interest in instruments stems from the feeling I experience playing each one. Due to my synesthesia, each instrument group and range has its own color. While the brass group has warmer colors (French horns are a luscious chestnut while tubas are a deep, muddy brown), woodwinds are more cool (the clarinet is a rich green while bassoons register at a dark, mysterious purple) and strings are neutral (violins are a light purple-gray, while cellos are a metallic green-silver). Percussive instruments are almost always bright, unforgiving yellows or whites. This sense of instrumentation allows me to easily calculate the musicality necessary for each instrument. For instance, to achieve the aforementioned rich greenness of a clarinet, one must apply a mild vibrato (a vibration of the sound achieved by altering breathing techniques) while clenching the front two teeth over the mouthpiece. Any other method produces a mossy gray-green mush which is utterly unpleasant to the ear. Meanwhile, to achieve the pale purple of a piccolo, it is necessary to incorporate a severe vibrato while using limited amounts of air to prevent a repulsive fuzzy bright blue haze. My sense of musicality also allows me to pair instruments that create the most aesthetically-pleasing ensembles. While the dark purple bassoon and pale purple piccolo are a natural match, the bright purple orchestra bells and the rich green clarinet create such a blasphemous duo that my mind aches with fury to ever consider the mixing of the two.
My connection with music is so favorable that I strongly believe it is what allows me to be as high-functioning as I am. As a camp counselor to autistic children I have concluded that each child has such a connection with one concept or item. In my observations I have witnessed everything from a severely autistic adult finding pleasure solely in complicated jigsaw puzzles to a young autistic who calms only when introduced to twigs. A hallmark of autistic disorders is that, while they rob one of basic abilities such as those involving social encounters and those that require fine motor skills, they allow room for a passion like no other. There is no ability as awesome as one accompanied by a disability. A common misconception by non-autistics is that autism is a terrible, horrible thing that ruins potentially successful children and pillages their minds as well as their bodies. People never seem to consider the benefits in their judgments. While some may advocate for the removal of the so-called monster in my head, I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world.