Date Published: July 12, 2023
Milosz Gasior created a buzz when he auditioned for the music program at a Florida high school. He arrived with piano music, and a teacher’s aide to help him follow directions.
“It was obvious that he was very musically talented, but it was very difficult to communicate with him during the audition,” recalls Derek Weston, program director of the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, on Florida’s Gulf coast. The program had never had a student “who was as far on the autism spectrum as Milosz, and it honestly made everyone nervous.” They were not anxious about Milosz, but rather about their lack of experience teaching a student like him, he explains.
Autism occurs along a wide spectrum, and Milosz has a particular mix of strengths and challenges. He speaks in short sentences and struggles to answer questions about his day. At the piano bench, however, he does not miss a note, his fingers gliding effortlessly over the keys.
That audition four years ago landed Milosz a place in the competitive program, which resembles a college-level conservatory for the performing arts. Staff knew they would need to push themselves to help Milosz reach his potential.
A Sound Sensitive Child
Milosz’s parents, Bozena and Marek, could not have foreseen that the little boy who covered his ears to block out sound would one day enjoy playing in a band. Like many people on the spectrum, he was very sensitive to loud sounds.
He had been a “perfect baby,” so calm and happy, his mother recalls. He met his milestones, such as smiling and crawling, on time. The only clue that something was different about him arose later, when he did not imitate sounds and start talking.
Bozena mentioned her son’s speech delay to his pediatrician. But the doctor said the delay may be due to his parents speaking their native language, Polish, at home. That is a common misperception about children in bilingual families.
Research shows that hearing two languages does not cause speech delays, even if the child has autism, according to Meagan Horn, a bilingual speech-language pathologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio.
In 2005, when Milosz was 2, a developmental specialist diagnosed him with moderate to severe autism, says Bozena, a foreign language teacher. “I remember the doctor telling us, ‘This is autism, and there is nothing on this planet that can change that.'” Autism causes repetitive behaviors and delays in social and communication skills that range from mild to severe, depending on the person.
Milosz’s parents did everything they could to help him. He had speech therapy to help him talk, occupational therapy to help with motor skills and sensory issues, and autism therapies that focused on behavior, learning, and developing relationships. “Equestrian therapy, assistance dogs ─ whatever it was, we tried it,” Bozena says. Also on the list: music therapy.
The Beginning of a Conversation
Music therapy gave Bozena an idea. When Milosz was 7, she began to teach him to play his older brother’s keyboard. He loved the feeling of pressing a key and hearing a note, along with the counting that is part of music, she recalls.
Milosz has talent, but he does not have savant syndrome, a rare condition in which someone has a developmental disability along with an area of superior ability, his mother says. He did not happen upon a piano one day and instantly play Mozart by ear. Rather, he learned to play piano like everyone else, by reading music and practicing often, Bozena says.
Music created an interaction between mother and son. Bozena would ask him what he was going to play. And Milosz would answer by selecting a song and beginning to play.
“I realized one of the reasons he loved so much to play was his longing to be with someone and his longing to be in conversation with someone. I would use words, and he would use music. He doesn’t say anything, but we had a conversation and that has never stopped.”
A Universal Language, in Musical Notes
Her idea of music as conversation is not new. “Music is the universal language of mankind,” wrote 19th Century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 2019, a group of researchers tested Longfellow’s hypothesis. They found that music is indeed universal and associated with behaviors, such as healing and love, across different societies.1
For Milosz, practicing piano was a joy, not a chore. He delighted in the structure the music gave him, Bozena says. She taught him to draw little circles next to each piece he would practice and color them in when he finished.
He continued that habit in high school, filling in circles with different color palettes, says Joyce Liu, his piano teacher at Gibbs High School. She photocopied his scores (pages of written music) and used colors to show how the notes should be played, one color for softly, another for short and choppy, another for smoothly.
Milosz would choose the colors, transforming his practice logs and black and white scores into vibrant art. “The scores were very, very beautiful,” Liu says.
Beyond Technical Skill: The Emotion of Music
Playing piano is more than pressing the keys in a particular order. A musician should communicate a song’s emotion and meaning, too.
But how does a teacher describe that emotion to a student who has language delays? Liu sometimes danced with Milosz or sang so he could see, feel, or hear the emotion a particular musical passage should create. And she showed him how to change the movement of his fingers across the keys to create the right emotion. “If the physical movement is correct, the sound will be correct. For instance, if you slow down the descent into the keys and listen to each note, you will get a beautiful phrase,” Liu says.
Milosz grew in musical skills and independence throughout high school. By his senior year, he no longer needed an aide to accompany him the way he did to that first audition. One challenge remained: he had to memorize all of the pieces he would play for his senior recital, a requirement.
Liu rejoiced when he memorized his entire program, a month before the recital. She excitedly texted the news to the program director: “He’s got it! He’s ready to perform.”
Milosz is not the only one who grew during those four years. “I feel like I became a better teacher because of him,” Liu says.
A Better Life
The Gasiors never stopped looking for ways to help Milosz. About a year before Milosz’s 2023 graduation, his father was searching online when he found SPARK, the largest ongoing study of autism. They joined and submitted saliva samples for DNA analysis by researchers, who want to uncover more autism genes. Besides genetic research, SPARK members can join studies about health, social supports, and other autism topics through SPARK Research Match.
Bozena says she hopes that researchers “find something to help people find and lead more rewarding lives.”
Today, Milosz, 20, is taking gigs as a solo piano player. Last year, he entertained travelers at Tampa International Airport during the Christmas holiday. In June, he played for residents of an assisted living community for two hours every Sunday. He loves the work, but it’s much more than earning some money, his mother says. “It’s that he feels needed in society.” He wants to find his place in the world. Just like anyone else.
Interested in joining SPARK? Here’s what you should know.
Photo provided by Bozena Gasior.
- Listen to Milosz Gasior play on his YouTube.com channel.
- Mehr S.A. et al. Science 366, eaax0868 (2019) PubMed