Music helps tame teen’s autistic symptoms

In his early years, teen jazz phenomenon Matt Savage was tormented by the avalanche of everyday sounds —- the swish of a windshield wiper, the hum of a refrigerator, the plunk of a piano key.

“He would scream, throw a tantrum and kick,” said his dad, Larry Savage of New Hampshire. “He was inconsolable.”

Even the silly songs of childhood sent him into a tizzy.

Matt, who will perform in his Atlanta debut at a benefit Saturday, was diagnosed with autism at age 2. But with therapies, the boy who couldn’t bear the sound of music began to compose music. When Matt switched to jazz piano, he was soon hailed by some as being a genius, an autistic savant. Now, at 16, he already has written 100 songs, recorded eight albums, performed at the Kennedy Center, jammed with jazz legends and shared the stage with Grammy-winning diva Chaka Khan.

“Matt is really a great inspiration to families out there who have gotten an autism diagnosis,” said Tia Severino, CEO of AID 4 AUTISM in Gwinnett, the event-planning firm hosting the music festival at Wild Bill’s on Saturday. “Because of the tendency of an autistic individual to get fixated on something, if that fixation happens to be on something creative, they can excel.”

Autism can impair language, social skills and comprehension and cause unusual behavior. It is the world’s fastest-growing developmental disability. One in 150 children is diagnosed with autism and more than 1.5 million Americans have the disorder, according to Centers for Disease Control and the Autism Society of America.

Autistic kids range from gifted to severely impaired. In Georgia, the number of public school students with autism jumped from 2,188 in December 2000 to 9,544 this school year.

“This is an epidemic of our time,” said Donna Davidson, president of Easter Seals North Georgia, which provides services for autistic children.

“There is not a cure. What we do know is that early intervention helps significantly. A lot of the interventions are not covered by insurance.”

Matt’s therapies worked. He has a diploma, a driver’s license and a career but still struggles somewhat with social skills, his dad said. “When they first diagnosed him, they said he would find it difficult to lead a normal life.”

The teen is still up for a challenge. He wrote the music for the autism benefit’s pop theme song. “Life is my big playground,” Matt said. “I feel so great now.”

By D. Aileen Dodd

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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