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Piano man with autism finds fulfillment in talent share

JamesPianoMSP2018WEBFor some parents of children with autism, goals of future meaningful employment and independence for their children can seem unattainable. Caregivers want the best for their children, but with limited services, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16.8 percent of the population with disabilities employed, the future can feel bleak.

One Elko, Minn. family is using their son’s talent as a compass pointing the way toward employment and life fulfillment.

A 19-year-old with limited vocabulary who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 2, James Johnson currently is at the age of transition, a period when families can be fearful of changes and worried that services will end.

Realizing that James’s developing talent could be the key for James’s meaningful employment, James’s family believes his story is just beginning.

JamesPiano2MSP2018WEBOver the course of the last 15 years, James has honed a remarkable skill: he has become an accomplished pianist whose music is creating the base for his own business.

James started playing piano when he was 5. “His first piano teacher was Shirley Hubalek; if it weren’t for Shirley, we would not have continued James on the piano path,” Joy Johnson, James's mom, said. “For the first few months of piano lessons with Shirley, James could barely sit down in front of the piano. Most teachers would have shied away from students like James due to his constant fidgeting and short attention.”

The patience of his beginner teacher made all the difference for James.

After working with Hubalek, finding a teacher who could continue to develop James’s talent was not easy.

Joy said, “James presents a unique challenge – verbal instructions don’t work well because James is nearly non-verbal. He flaps his hands, rocks, paces, and makes noise. Many people assume that those with severe disabilities like James can accomplish little in life. To teach James, one needs to be patient, creative, and confident in herself and James.”

James’s father, Daniel, has been James's consistent guide on James's musical journey. When they sought additional teachers to advance James's abilities, they often were discouraged. Joy said, “For 10 years, James had no teacher other than his father. But James did not stop practicing daily. When there is hope, there is always a way!”

James continued on with help from Daniel and from teachers who encouraged his confidence and perseverance.

Yue Wu, one of James’s instructors, supported James’s higher education. “Immediately Ms. Wu recognized James’ special talent in music, and persistently encouraged us to pursue higher goals for James," Joy said. "If not for Ms. Wu, we wouldn’t have had the confidence to register James for college courses.”

In 2016, hundreds of hours of practice and hard work began to yield some exciting rewards, including more than 200 volunteer piano-playing gigs at places including nursing homes.

Knowing this talent could indeed be a catalyst for employment, James has begun receiving compensation for his performances. In October 2018, James made his debut playing at MSP Airport as part of their Arts@MSP, a program through the Airport Foundation MSP that invites 30 performers to play for airport patrons.

James currently is working on starting his own small business, AbiliKeys in Autism, with help from Vocational Rehabilitation Services MN (VRS) and the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). His family hopes that playing piano will help him find the independence he desires.

Joy believes that James’s focus on practicing piano 2-4 hours per day and his above average memory are important factors in his success, but she also says that having a family and supporters who keep their expectations high and always ask for more have propelled his growth.

“More people should be willing to recognize the abilities of individuals on the spectrum, seeing beyond their challenges to find talents and build meaningful lives,” Joy said. “The major obstacle for our children’s meaningful employment does not rest on abilities or disabilities, but rather on expectations. If our sons and daughters are not expected to achieve much in life, how can they?”

James's family are champions for James, and they encourage other parents and caregivers to help realize their children’s talents. “When our children have limited ability to advocate for themselves, we the parents can help advocate for them while focusing on their likes and abilities,” Joy said. “Celebrate even the smallest progress in a skill. James has musical talent; your children may have talents in something else. Guide and encourage your children in learning skills that are important to them.”

Joy looks forward to the day when James can make a living from piano performances, but her dreams reach beyond that for those with disabilities and our community.

“Only when people with disabilities live fulfilling lives through meaningful employment and fair housing conditions can it be said that justice is served and harmony is reached in our shared community.”