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Calls to Action

How one savant uses her gifts for music, public policy, and research

This guest post is by Henny Kupferstein, an author who is an autistic savant and PhD student. Today, she gives skype piano lessons to non-verbal and autistic student around the world. You can learn more about Henny on her website or Facebook and Twitter.  

The first time my fingers touched the cool plastic keys of the Yamaha keyboard, I was amazed to realize that the sounds were sequential.  If I went up to the right, the tones went “up” in my head. The same was for the “going down” direction. Having no formal knowledge of the musical language, I was stunned that the sounds seemed to have a pattern. I saw a picture in my head of a pile of bubbles, and they kept floating up or down in a hazy sky of colors, depending on where my fingers were on the keyboard.  

With that imagery, I envisioned some songs that I liked, and used my fingers to paint those colors by their ‘correct’ placements to match the picture. It felt like a paint by number, where I was filling in the spaces by matching them to the color key. Magnificent sounds emerged, and I played for hours and hours, experimenting with coloring the spaces in with unusual shades to see if it would look prettier in my head. I was completely unaware that sounds had names, that the keys had letters assigned to them. Rather, I was using the keyboard as a tool to make the scenery in my head to become tangible through sound. I had no idea that I had perfect pitch and  synesthesia—I was hearing what I was seeing, and tasting what I was hearing.

Thinking in patterns comes easily to me. Explaining those patterns is impossible unless I use scientific language. I find tremendous relief in quantifying my experience and writing long-winded explanations for the immense theories I can see in my head. Today, I find happiness when leading experts are delighted that I uncovered a novel approach to a baffling issue in their field. With the way I think, I have yet to discover how many fields I can influence and impact. After a lifetime of Rain Man stunts such as informing people what their grocery cart totals were, I wanted to convert my savant skills into a meaningful income. I later found my calling as an independent researcher just as I turned 35.

As a child, I was able to help the Brooklyn police department solve a crime. While everyone was able to describe the perpetrator’s face (something I couldn’t do because of prosopagnosia), I was the only one who noticed the plate number of the getaway car. Heightened abilities like my own can be isolating and ostracising especially when they become more pronounced after puberty. It took me more than thirty years to fully accept my autistic identity. Today, I prefer to be called autistic rather than a person with autism, much like I prefer to be identified as a redheaded Jew, and not a person with Judaism and redheadedness.

I like to tell autistic people, “It is very important to cultivate your individual abilities, and believe that the world has a need for your strengths. Apply them to as many areas as possible. Don’t limit yourself by working only for Amtrak because you worry how your interests can also apply to the NBA.” To push myself beyond my primary interests of music and academic research, I wrote five legislative bills, two of which already passed into law in the state of New York. Public policymakers sure can use a pattern thinker to see where state funds are misappropriated so budgets can be rewritten to benefit more people while eliminating redundant expenditures.  

Another way to use a pattern thinking gift is for product development. Many people have great ideas for inventions but they cannot imagine in their heads how to precisely turn the individual parts of raw material in the exact angle so the device will hold together. This year, I filed a patent for a hand support device called the Perfect Perch ®. It was designed for people with motor challenges such as dyspraxia due to autism to gain the use of their ten fingers for independent piano playing and ten-finger typing.

As a piano teacher for non-verbal and autistic students, I feel like I am living inside their sensory experience which helps me package and communicate their needs so their family and educational team can accommodate them best. It is my goal for all autistic people to become aware of how to utilize their own inborn abilities to thrive in a world that is not neurodiversity friendly. While music making is my preferred mode of expression, I also aim to contribute to research so the world can be a better place for the next generation of autistic people. When my autistic children grow up, I want them to know that it is safe for them to be weird and cool, and not fear their differences and be shamed for them. 

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The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.