My Son’s Autism Helped Make Him an Award-Winning Singer

In my view, what some may see as my son, Michael’s, disability is, in fact, a different ability.

Temple Grandin, an author who has autism, speaks about how the ability to think in pictures enabled her to become a world leader in the field of animal science. My son, who is also an individual with autism, can remember music as a “recording” that is accurate in every detail.

This ability comes with some challenges. More than one music teacher has reported that Michael sometimes mumbles and appears not to remember his part when first learning a piece of music. Some are baffled. Others are annoyed. Some get it, get past it and have helped to change Mike’s life for the better.

In spite of these challenges, Michael’s talent enabled him to be the only vocalist in his school district to be invited to sing with the New York All-State Mixed Chorus in 2011. Two years ago, because of his musical achievements, Michael was one of 10 individuals worldwide to receive the McCarton Foundation’s Genius of Autism award. He sang on Broadway as part of the awards ceremony. Last year, he was #2 on Autism Speaks’ “10 Talented Individuals With Autism Who Inspired in 2014” list.

When Michael first hears a musical piece, it takes awhile before he feels comfortable singing. If the music is very complicated, it might be a few days before he even tries to sing his part. When he starts singing, it may first come out as a mumble. While all of this this is happening, Mike is absorbing every detail of the music. When this process is done, he’s able to “play” the piece in his mind just like it was a recording.

Once the “recording” is complete, he will always start the song on the right note (he has perfect pitch) and will always sing at the correct tempo. Next, he’ll gradually focus on his individual part and differentiate it from the rest of the piece. Slowly but surely, his voice goes from a mumble to a weak voice and finally to a powerful, resonant voice.

Early on, my wife and I realized that Michael communicated best through music. As a toddler, he would greet people with the da-da-da-dum notes that begin Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In his early teens, Michael became very withdrawn, and I began working on songs with him to keep the lines of communication open. Then something unexpected happened. More and more, his own emotions began coming out through his singing. Sometimes he would tear up as he was singing, but he didn’t want to talk about it.

Eventually, Michael began singing publicly. People often come up to him after a performance to tell him how much he has inspired them and touched their hearts. At first, this made him uncomfortable, and after talking to a few people, he would ask to go home. But now, he just smiles from ear to ear and waits to talk to everyone who comes up to him. As an extra bonus, an autism parent comes up to Mike every once in awhile to tell him he has given them hope for their own child.

As for those who don’t “get” Michael, I’ve found that it’s necessary to raise awareness and be optimistic while remaining stubborn. And when all else fails, I’m always ready to become a warrior for my son.

When Michael was in his first year of high school, it was suggested that the mainstream chorale program was not an appropriate setting for him. A new music program was being set up for special needs students. My wife and I were asked if we would agree to place Michael in the special needs music program instead of the mainstream program. We refused.

A year later, a teacher who had believed that Michael shouldn’t be in the mainstream chorale program approached my wife and me and said, “Mr. and Mrs. Korins, I’ll be the first to admit it. You were right and I was wrong.” While we still had our disagreements, this same teacher went on to go out of his way to make sure that my son didn’t experience sensory overload during a school trip to Disney World.

Our son participated in chorale, concert choir and the special needs music program while he was at high school. One year, he was in all three programs at the same time. He thoroughly enjoyed them all.

As an autism parent, my journey with Michael has taught me that if you focus on your child’s strengths, their self-esteem will soar. Once this happens, they’ll be better prepared to take on whatever challenges they may face. And you never know, they just might accomplish something that you never dreamed was possible.

Along the way, I’ve done everything I could think of to inspire my son to focus on his musical talents. But most of all, I want Michael to know that he has inspired me more than I could ever inspire him.

Please watch the video below of Michael singing Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.”

RELATED: Man With Autism Performs Beautiful Tribute to Paul McCartney

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When the Doctor Asked Me Why I Adopted a ‘Child Like This’

The medical community is one in which we spend an above average amount of time. It’s a place I thought would be the most accepting of a child with a disability.

Yet some of the most insensitive questions have come out of the mouths of medical professionals. More often than not, I haven’t been prepared with an answer. Those moments truly haunt me even years later.

I had taken my daughter for her well child check-up with her pediatrician. We adopted her when she was 4 years old, and it shocks many people to know that we intentionally selected a child with cerebral palsy. I get it. In a society where the sentiment to a pregnant mom is always, “As long as it’s healthy,” many can’t fathom choosing this special needs life, but we embraced it. 

I was still completely unprepared when, after examining my 6-year-old daughter, the pediatrician turned to me and asked, “So what made you want to adopt a child like this?”

There were many things I wanted to say, but what came to my mind the most was what my daughter heard. In that moment, I was frozen with panic that responding poorly would scar my child forever. 

I wanted to slap the doctor and ask her what gave her the right to do this to me. To imply my child was less than worthy of my love, to put me in defense of not only my judgment, but my devotion left me speechless. Didn’t she know how hard it can be to foster attachment and provide security to an adopted child without insensitive questions like this? I mumbled something about how we chose her because we wanted a child with special needs. Whatever I said was completely inadequate. I’d never prepared for a moment like that. I was horrified, angry and sad all at the same time. Hot tears stung my eyes as we left. What gave her that right?

Looking back, I think I overcomplicated things. I wanted to explain how we arrived at the conclusion to adopt a child with special needs. I wanted to explain how I knew that I couldn’t change the world, but I had been determined to change one child’s world. I absolutely did want a child “like that” simply because its not right for any child to be anything else than loved and cared for. I wanted to tell her how much progress my daughter had made. I wanted her to know how my daughter did so many things people had told her she wouldn’t ever do, and she was only 6. 

All of those things didn’t sound right to say in front of my daughter, though. I didn’t want to explain away why no one else wanted her and defend why I did.  All of those things made her sound like a less than desirable piece of merchandise and she was a living, breathing, perfect child sitting on the exam room table looking at me. 

The question was wrong because what I believe was assumed  that she was less than desirable — is not true. There was never a need to explain why we adopted our daughter, especially in front of her. The reason why we chose to adopt our daughter was not the doctor’s right to know.

What I wish I could have said to that doctor was, “Well that’s a silly question! We adopted her because we wanted a little girl just like her; we are so lucky! What on earth ever made you decide not to adopt a child like this?”

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How Date Nights Helped Us Take Better Care of Our Terminally Ill Child

Being in a relationship takes work. Being in a relationship with a new baby takes extra work. But being in a relationship with a terminal child, well, that takes a lot of work, like overtime work. Let’s not sugarcoat anything.

After my husband, Justin, and I found out we were expecting a baby girl, we started looking for a bigger home and preparing for our bundle of joy. We picked out names, discussed nursery room ideas and talked about our future with our daughter. 

On January 13, 2013 at 8:12 am, I delivered our beautiful baby girl, Hannah, through a planned C-section. Her dad couldn’t stop crying tears of joy. It was his first and my third baby. His first baby girl, his princess. We went home and life began.

We both worked, took care of three kids and the house. But we forgot that we needed to have date nights. Who has time for a date night while caring for a newborn? We tried to go out, but all we could think about was the baby. We’d rather be home, so that was that.

Months went by. Life was still hectic, but we become just an ordinary couple who forgot why we fell in love. Then on June 5, 2013, we were told Hannah had Krabbe disease, a rare genetic condition, and she wouldn’t live past 2 years old.

How would we survive without our baby? Everything changed. I left my full-time job to take care of Hannah 24/7 while Justin worked. We were so tired all of the time. We were both so stressed. We fought over every little thing. We ate dinner and just tried to sleep. We didn’t talk. It was quiet like this for months. We both wanted our relationship to be like it was before. But was that possible?

One day, we thought it was time for us to go on date nights to remember why we fell in love in the first place. We both needed to bring happiness back into our home again, not only for Hannah, but for us.

It wasn’t easy going out with a terminally ill child at home. We couldn’t just leave her with anybody. But we figured it out. We started dating two times a month. We went ice skating, to dinner or a casino, anywhere that would make us feel like a couple without a sick child. Even if it was only for a couple of hours. We felt refreshed, and I knew Hannah felt the happiness, too.

December 28, 2014, Hannah passed away. They say a death of a child will either break you or make you stronger together. I have to say it made us stronger as a couple. We don’t always see eye to eye, but we figured out how to see eye to eye. There are nights we just sit and watch TV. There are nights when we talk, don’t talk or maybe even argue. But the next day is a new day. You should always try to start fresh. I keep telling myself that.

After seeing how Justin remained strong enough to dress Hannah and get her ready for the funeral home, I fell in love with him all over again that day. He doesn’t know that (well, he does now.) I’ve learned through this journey that Justin doesn’t have to grieve like me.  Everyone grieves differently and that’s OK. Our relationship isn’t perfect. But it’s perfect to us. We know our road isn’t easy, and we’re willing to work through the hard times because we know our love is strong enough.

Vicki Pizzullo the mighty

Follow this journey on Hope for Hannah Bear.

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The 4-Word Message on a Ribbon That Helps Me With Anxiety

I’ve learned that anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand, and there is no shame in having either — although it’s tough for many people to get their arms around that concept.

Growing up, I had always been, quite naturally, the life of any party. But over a period of several years, I began to stay away from such parties. When I did go and fake my way through, I would usually leave upset, gripped by the weight of having been such a fraud.

When I struggled with anxiety and depression in my last couple years as the Texas Rangers’ baseball play-by-play announcer, the few people in whom I confided expressed genuine shock. “Depressed? About what? You’ve got a great job! Legions of adoring fans! A wonderful family! Dude, what’s your problem?”

At my lowest moments, everything and everyone in the world was a threat. Not just people I knew, but people I knew I’d never meet. Brad Pitt’s looks? A threat. Same for Peyton Manning’s arm, Josh Groban’s voice, Justin Timberlake’s talent, the neighbor’s house…they all felt like threats to me instead of things for me to simply enjoy.

In an anxious state, all I could see were the things I couldn’t do or didn’t have, and the person I couldn’t be. I had no appreciation whatsoever for anything I already was. No matter what I did, I had this foreboding sense that it would never be enough. And if the people in my life who mattered had the “gall” to appreciate or acknowledge the talents of others, I took it as a punch in the face. It was a scary, lonely, exhausting way to go through life.

The crux of an anxiety disorder is the complete inability to be at peace with the present moment — always expecting the other shoe to drop, waiting for something to go wrong. I’d be racked with guilt about things I’d done poorly and trembling with worry that I’d soon screw something else up, too. I worried that it would all come crashing down within an hour of air time. Quite routinely, I’d seek refuge in the press box bathroom, head in my hands, trying to remind myself, “It’s OK. I’m OK.” Sometimes I was… most times I wasn’t.

After a diagnosis of GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) and depression, lots of therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) and hard work (self-help), I stumbled upon a small purple ribbon — 25 cents at a thrift shop. It’s for little kids who wipe out at field day, I’d guess, and it simply says “I Tried My Best.” But it works for me and, as odd as it sounds, there are still days that if I don’t look at that ribbon, I forget where this path to salvation is located. Finally, slowly, I am coming to understand and live that dynamic: All anyone can do is his or her best. No matter who’s suggesting otherwise — if it’s other people telling you or your own addled brain — that’s got to be the thing you remember. Live to your fullest potential and let that be enough. Whatever has happened is immaterial. Whatever might happen is rarely in your power.

What does the future hold? Who knows? What a scary thought for the already-threatened, but there are no cheat codes one can acquire and apply to real life. Will my kids turn out OK? Will my wife still love me? Will I stay gainfully employed? How scary, even to this day, to type the words “I don’t know.”

The fear of being “never enough” is a painful, full-body throb. With the Rangers, I had days where the gravity of that thought would keep me in bed, under the covers, unwilling or unable to get up. What a wasteful, unfortunate way to spend time. I beg anyone who has experienced worry, “lack” or “threat” to, first, get some help, and then go get a purple ribbon and fly it like a flag. If you tried your best, it is, indeed, enough. That’s all anyone can ever rightfully demand of you anyway.

The only thing I do control is to be the best possible version of myself. And to surround myself with people — professionally and personally — who are kind, nurturing and understanding. I have done that now, accepting a job with the New York Mets and continuing as the voice of the San Diego Chargers. I like the jobs, I like the people, and most importantly, I’m learning to like myself again.

A version of this post originally appeared on Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

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To My Child’s IEP Case Manager

To My Son’s IEP Case Manager:

I want you to know I have always been extremely grateful to be raising a child with special needs in a society where Early Intervention, IEPs and Child Study Teams exist.

I want you to know that while I obviously am a nervous wreck about sending my child off to school, I was actually looking forward to the IEP process and coming up with a plan that would meet my son’s needs and help him to succeed.

I want you to know this process is an emotional one for us. It’s hard for any parent to send your child off to strangers, but my child can’t talk, so I worry he won’t be able to tell me if something bad happens at school, and my child can’t walk, so I worry about how much he will rely on others to make it through his day. So that worry that all parents feel, it’s multiplied.

I want you to know this little boy’s life has not been typical…

On the second day of his life, he was taken from his mommy in an ambulance to CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) where he would spend the night without her. (See, I’d just had a c-section, so I would not be allowed to leave my own hospital until the following day.)

He would spend almost two weeks there at CHOP, working his little butt off, trying to learn something most babies do as naturally as crying or breathing: learning to eat.

This little boy would begin receiving Early Intervention at three months old and would work hard to do every single thing that many of us do and take for granted.

I want you to know this is why I believe he “deserves” the best education possible. And while you sigh and roll your eyes when I say that, I want you to think about your own children and how you might feel if they had to travel the road my son has.

And when you tell me you do not “have to” give my son “the best” education, that you only “have to” give him an “appropriate education,” I want you to think of your own child and how you would feel if you walked into their classroom at Back to School Night and their teacher stood up to tell you that, just so you know, she doesn’t have to give your child the best that year, merely what’s appropriate.

And when I tell you the reasons why my son needs more than you are offering him, I would appreciate it if you could tweak or defend what you have set up instead of stating that you “don’t need to.”

I want you to know that you have almost made me lose complete faith in Special Education in public schools, something that I thought was such a beautiful thing. I say “almost” because I know a great deal of amazing people who work in Special Education and they are nothing like you, so I will not lose faith in them. I say “almost” because I work in a school and I have worked with the CST (Child Study Team) in my school, and they would never behave the way you have or word things the way that you chose to; they care about our students.

You have made me realize how naive I was to think that you had my child’s best interests at heart. Part of our job as people in the education system is to care. Somehow too many of us are losing sight of that. I think you are one of those people.

I want you to know I am not as upset about how you have made us feel as I am that this is possibly how you go about every meeting you run. Maybe this was a bad month for you. I pray it was possibly because I myself am an educator, so maybe you felt you had something to prove. I don’t care about how you have treated us because we can handle you. We have the resources and the support system to do whatever we need to do for our son, but not every family does, and that is my biggest worry.

I hope you are able to change and take a bit more care when dealing with the families you deal with. Keep in mind that their road as parents has been a bit rockier than your own might have been.

Keep in mind that the worry they feel for their children may seem a bit excessive because their children are a bit more dependent on others than your typical child.

Keep in mind that all of these families matter. From the families who worry about if their child is reading or writing on grade level, to the families like mine, who worry if their children will ever be able to run into their arms, and if they will ever hear the words “I love you” come from their lips.

I hope you can learn to handle all of these families you work with with more care. I pray for that. I believe that is the most important part of your job. Not your job as an employee of the school district, but your job as a human being.

Thank you for your time.


A Parent Who Loves Her Child

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When I Felt Like My Well Had Run Dry for My Son With Autism

My nearly 11-year-old son has an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis of PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified). This means basically that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum with some things and typically developing with other things. He has gifts, he has challenges. This is how I choose to define it when asked by others what it means.

This kid has lived his 10 years with speech therapy, and IEPs, and behavior modifications, and social skills groups, and occupational therapy, and and and and… He has come so far in this decade of life.

A kid who couldn’t point to things with his index finger (or any other, for that matter) can now tell me the nuances of all the different Minecraft characters and show me the virtual world he has created within this game.

He’s incredibly smart in math. He knows the entire Beatles catalog forward and backward, complete with album listings and song run times. His phonetic reading skills are killer, but he has trouble with comprehension. He has no great friends, but no enemies either.

He is quite happy to be himself, doesn’t look to others outside our family for companionship or entertainment, but doesn’t eschew the company of others at all. His skin fits him well and he is comfortable in it.

Fifth grade has been a challenge. There’s lots of independent work to be done, Common Core has its own challenges for even kids who are considered gifted, and oh, the reading. The reading. My kid has tenuous social skills with real, live three-dimensional people; imagine him relating to a character written in a chapter book. With no pictures. And perhaps a regional dialect. Um, yeah, no.

He is rebelling in school. Not in the way where he becomes behavioral or inappropriate, but where he basically shuts down. He stops following along. It’s not a willful dissent all the time (sometimes I think it is), but mostly a coping mechanism. He gets spoken to at school. He gets spoken to at home. He loses privileges at home. His grades suffer at school. I’m doing fifth-grade work all over again. I passed that grade almost 30 years ago. I’m resigned to the fact I have to do it all again until he graduates high school. He needs the help, the redirection. I don’t do the work for him, but boy would it make my life easier if I did. “Preparing the child for the road is harder than preparing the road for the child,” I tell myself. “Stay the course. You do him no favors if you do everything for him.” But my well has run dry. I’m tired to the bones. I have two other children who need a mama. I neglect my own self-care to care for him. I’m becoming resentful. Self-hatred is at an all-time high.

I emailed the school psychologist during the winter break. I needed guidance. She knows my son well, and we are friendly enough at this point where outside of school meetings we function on a first name basis. “If you happen to check your work email during the break, and you have the inclination, would you, could you, please, call me? I need help,” I wrote. “I despise the way I act, the way I talk to this kid. He deserves better.” She called me. During her break from my kid and all the others that she nurtures and knows and ruminates on as she lies in bed at night. She also has her own. Her own kids, her own problems. When I saw her number on the caller ID, I’d have been no happier had it been Brad Pitt calling to shoot the sh*t.

I tell her my problem. I love this boy more than life itself, I would surrender my last breath to give him air. “What he needs is too much,” I say. “It’s not fair to my other two children. The highs with his successes are so high, but the lows of his struggles are so damn low. I will be doing this homework through twelfth grade and beyond,” I whined. Basically I am tired, and I do not know how not to be tired with a half a school year plus seven more (at least) school years left. I was looking ahead so far and dreading it.

This is what she said:

“Fairness does not mean equal. Fairness means that everyone gets what they need. Your other children have the wonderful quality of empathy that many adults do not possess, and it’s because of their brother. They get what they need from you and from others. No one else can be their mother.  But if you give up on this boy, if you decide that your well is in fact, dry, then this boy will be lost.

“You are the advocate, you are the one to teach him the oft-neglected skill of self-advocacy so that he can help himself. You are a teacher and a cheerleader. You are the optimist. You are also human. It’s normal to be tired. It gets better. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, but it gets better. Cheryl, you have no choice. It’s your job.”

And with that, I opened my dresser drawer, the one with the big girl panties in it, and I put them on. And I went in search of water to fill my well.

This well cannot run dry. This is my job. It will get better. I’m grateful for the reminder of someone who did not have to call me back, did not have to cheer me on, did not have to dig into her reserves to fill my well. But she did. I will start again after the break with renewed purpose and renewed gratitude for all those who have helped us on this journey.

And for the record, even with all the challenges, I would not change one damn thing about him or my other babies. We are all exactly as we are meant to be.

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