What It’s Like to Be a Guitarist With Autism


My name is Tom Bak and I am a musician and songwriter, and I have autism.

I was diagnosed with autism when I was 3 years old, and I have been playing guitar since I was 7. Music has always been a part of my life. My mom once said music was the only therapy I ever responded to.

I started performing in rock bands when I was 11 years old. I don’t try to hide my autism from my band, from the audience or from anyone. But having autism means I interpret, write and perform music in a unique way.

When it comes to performing sometimes I have to stand perfectly still to keep my concentration. If I move around while performing that can break my focus, and I’ll lose my place in the song. Standing still while I perform helps me maintain my concentration. The audience may think I am emotionless and stiff when I play, but this is just what I need to do to stay focused.

Sometimes when I’m performing it’s hard for me not to look at the audience.  Autism makes me sensitive to sensory input such as noise, people moving around and talking with each other. I try to just play through the noise and look at my bandmates to help keep me on track. But sometimes it’s really hard for me to redirect my attention away from the audience when I’m performing. One thing I can do that helps me avoid getting distracted by audience noise during a show is to focus on my guitar while I’m playing.

I started writing songs when I was 15. I’m lucky because my sister, Evee, and my best friend, Harrison, are a part of my band, and we work together to write new songs.

Tom Bak's band Bak Pak
Tom Bak with his band Bak Pak in Philadelphia

I’ll start a new song by putting together notes. I don’t really think about what the song is about. I just start by playing out notes and creating melodies. Before the song is complete, we have to take the melodies and lyrics and arrange them into the final song. Coming up with an arrangement for a song is hard for me. I’m good at thinking about the details but not the big picture of the song. I tend to think about details, such as how notes come together, rather than patterns when arranging melodies. However, songwriting is good for me because it helps me think about the meaning of the song rather than just the details.  his summer, my band and I recorded two new original songs.

Tom Bak performing at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2016
Tom Bak performing at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia in 2016

I’m grateful for my band and the opportunities we have had to play in live venues throughout Philadelphia. I’m also grateful for the friendships I’ve made through music. Music has been an important part of my life, and I’ve learned so much from writing songs and playing live music with my friends.

I got started in music because there were people who were willing to give me a
chance. Any child with a disability who loves music should be given the same chances that I had.

The world needs more understanding of people in the autism community. People need to see that having autism doesn’t hold you back from pursuing your talents and following your dreams.

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