Note: The names of those interviewed have been changed by request. The author is also aware of the different views of the usage of ‘people with autism’ and ‘autistic people’.
Diversity in the entertainment industry has been a target of discussion as of late. From disparities ranging between race and gender, respectively regarding The Academy and the ongoing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, one minority group often goes unnoticed, especially in the world of music and entertainment – disability. This begs the question: are there professionals with autism in the music industry? How do they make an exciting yet tumultuous industry work for them? What can neurotypical professionals in the music industry learn from their peers’ accounts?
It’s been speculated for decades that music and autism go hand in hand. According to the CDC, about 1 in 68 children have been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In studies, there have been findings that suggest that individuals with autism are capable of hearing music differently. This includes heightened musical perception and enhanced detection of changes in pitch, which makes these individuals suitable for a career in music. It’s been theorized that Mozart himself might’ve had autism. Though Mozart’s been gone for 257 years, do autistic people in the music industry exist? The answer is yes.
Kelsey – Management
Kelsey was diagnosed with autism well into her late 30s. Unfortunately, in many cases, women often go undiagnosed. Kelsey grew up surrounded by music, coming from a family of musicians and is even a retired competitive ballroom dancer, so it only made sense for her to pursue music as a career. Though it took Kelsey years to finally have an answer, she finds that having autism has its benefits and shortcomings.
“It’s nice to know why I have struggled with what I’ve struggled with. I wish I had known earlier in life, but women are not always so easy to diagnose. I would not trade who I am for anything though, even with the struggles. The disadvantage is people really don’t understand me as well as I would like for them to. For instance, I may not like eye contact, but I’m exceptionally honest without having to stare someone in the eyes to prove it.”
Her advice for autistic youth looking to head into the music industry includes following their hearts and having radical self-care practices in place.
“If you can’t handle live shows due to the extreme stimulation, there are still plenty of ways to be involved in the music industry, such as graphic design, recording & mixing, etc.”
Stephanie – Music Festival Operations
Like Kelsey, Stephanie was not diagnosed with autism until she was older. On top of her autism diagnosis, Stephanie also has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
“School was always impossible for me with ADD,” Stephanie said. Through her life, she had a feeling that there might’ve been something else that was also leading to her struggles through school. In Stephanie’s case, she was given a diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which was part of the four autism diagnoses before being redefined in the DSM-5.
Like Kelsey, her love for music and performance started at an early age. Her father worked in film and music production, teaching Stephanie multi-tracking. This led to Stephanie majoring in music theory for three semesters. From there, she learned how to DJ at a local record shop, which she enjoyed immensely. Stephanie DJ’d for six years.
“It started out as a great love. We had so much fun, then it grew into something that I loved doing.”
For Stephanie, she believes that she thrives in the chaotic world of music festivals because her mind runs chaotically, that and she loves being in large crowds. Though sometimes Stephanie gets disciplined at work, her coworkers would say that she is a very dedicated worker. She hopes that someday music festivals will be more ADA compliant so that anyone despite ability can feel included while enjoying a show.
Joe – Artist
Not officially diagnosed on the autism spectrum, Joe knew that his mind worked differently.
“My brain can turn every single thing off – time, food hunger – if I didn’t have any other responsibility it wouldn’t matter I can focus on one thing,” which for Joe is his love for music. To him, music has more meaning than one would think.
“Music was always a friend. It gives me love right back. With music, the universe and god are going through you and it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Joe started singing when he was around 5 years old. When he was around 8 he would visit a community center that had a piano. Now Joe runs a home studio where he can surround himself with good friends and fellow musicians to produce the thing he loves most.
Joe’s gifts are both a blessing and a curse, citing that his heightened perception of the world can feel impeding.
“I can see every movement, constantly analyzing people and it can interfere with relationships, making it hard to live. It’s hard not to notice things.”
Towards the end of the interview, Joe had these motivational words to say:
“Take all the help you can get from people that have the motive to help you. Push yourself past your discomfort of being tired, work hard. Life is about learning about who you are. Chase it down until it’s no longer interesting.”
Kelsey, Stephanie and Joe’s stories are exemplary of why you should follow your passions and work hard to pursue your dreams despite the many hurdles that might be set before you. Though it may seem like you’re alone in how you feel, or how the world may seem to treat you, always remember there are others out there like you, who see and feel and hear the world just like you do. Most importantly, as an individual with autism myself I say this – be yourself, no matter how many people may find you different. Embrace your strengths, always work on your weaknesses, and know that you’re worth so much more than you give yourself credit for, never let others make you feel otherwise.
My conclusive words to anyone who’s reading this that works in the music and entertainment industry as a whole – we’re here, embrace us and allow us to show our true potentials. These brilliant minds may someday change the world of music as we know it. I encourage you to share this story with your co-workers, and to families that you know that have children with autism – show them that anything is possible.