This guest post is by Harrison Strunk, a young man on the autism spectrum who has been accepted and will be attending William Paterson University majoring in Jazz Performance. Harrison is applying for the Spring 2019 Making a Difference Autism Scholarship via the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference. You can read more about the organization and how to apply for our scholarship here. You can help our scholarship program continue to help these students by making a donation to our scholarship fund here (the majority of our scholarship program is ran through donors from our community such as yourself so no matter if you could donate anything, whether it be $5 anywhere up to $5,000 it would be making a difference!).

The noise was deafening! I could only get away from it by covering my ears.  The pre-school aid came over to calm me as my gym teacher finally stopped blowing the whistle. It wasn’t unusual that I would react so dramatically to the sharp sound. I often flinched when a lawn mower started or a motorcycle went by.  You see, I was that type of kid, to have meltdowns during a fire drill even though they would warn me ahead of time. I could not control my fears.

My anxieties were frustrating and made my behavior unpredictable.  It made it difficult for my parents to take me out to dinner or go grocery shopping.  They worked hard to keep a routine. I hated all the noises around me and the constant stimulation.  I wanted to be able to concentrate. Funny, that my dad is a professional drummer. All that banging and clanging, but drumsticks were placed in my hands as soon as I could make a grip.  Nothing made me laugh harder than sitting on my dad’s lap as he held my hands as I tapped out a calypso on the snare.  Of course, I wore noise cancelling headphones.

I had a drum lesson most days and soon became accustomed to noisy surroundings, flinching less and less.  I was determined to learn to drum to my favorite band, the Beatles. I played along to their songs until my dad thought it was good enough to make a video.  My debut at 6 years old makes me chuckle now. What was I thinking gripping my sticks so high and wearing Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas? It was a bit of a sensation and I like how everyone reacted when they saw it and I was eager to do what my dad told me. He said “if you want to be a great drummer, you have to learn to read music.”  How was I supposed to do that? So many distractions, I can’t keep my eyes on the page! So, I got up 15 minutes earlier before my bus came every day and worked on reading and counting rhythms.

By Middle School, I was in every school music ensemble and auditioned and made Regional Wind, Percussion and Jazz Ensembles.  I began socializing and formed a rock band which performed at the 8th grade talent show. I became proud and confident. Moreover, I became eager to try new things and go to new places.  My father’s love of jazz led me to pursue many top jazz programs outside of high school. My participation in Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens at NJPAC and Jazz House Kids in Montclair has given me performance and educational opportunities that have taught me to listen, collaborate and experiment.  I performed at the Charles Mingus Jazz Competition in NYC where I sang and played drums. Being in Matthew Whitaker’s organ ensemble last year showed me that people with disabilities, Matt’s blind, can travel the world and create amazing music. So, when I received news that I was a recipient of the City Music Scholarship and I can attend Berklee College of Music’s Five Week Summer Program, I told myself I can do this.  I wasn’t sure I could be away from home, but that all changed once I was at Berklee.  I found myself jamming at the Cafe the first night I was there and navigating the streets of Boston by myself. I eagerly attended all my classes as I was able to follow my schedule and figure out when to practice (organizational skills are tough for me).  I even surprised my parents.

Now I plan to attend college and get a degree in music performance. I still wear noise cancelling headphones when I practice, but I don’t run away anymore with my hands pressing my ears. Music has changed my life and I am forever grateful that my parents were so encouraging.  I no longer see my Asperger’s as a disability, but an opportunity. Temple Grandin has autism too. She writes about how she thinks in pictures, not in words like other people. This has been a huge asset to her career. I also tend to think differently from other people. Sometimes, my abilities to hear and perform music have surprised my teachers and classmates. They are amazed by my accuracy and feel that others have such difficulty emulating.  As a consequence of her unique abilities, Temple Grandin is a world-famous expert on animal behavior and an authority in livestock handling and animal management. She overcame the limits of her autism and was able to use her differences to her advantage. I see myself as similarly advantaged. The music I hear in my head is not a noise or distraction, but a gift that I can use and share with others in my career as a musician.

Follow Kerry’s journey on Facebook, his Facebook Fan Page, & Instagram!

Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and best-selling author who is also on the autism spectrum started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education. Help us continue to help students with autism go to college by making a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit here.

Also, consider having Kerry, one of the only professionally accredited speakers on the spectrum in the country, speak at your next event by sending him an inquiry here. If you have a referral for someone who many want him to speak please reach out as well! Kerry speaks with schools, businesses, government agencies, colleges, nonprofit organizations, parent groups and other special events on topics ranging from employment, how to succeed in college with a learning disability, internal communication, living with autism, bullying prevention, social media best practices, innovation, presentation best practices and much more!

We’d also appreciate if you could take a minute to create a Facebook Fundraiser to support our nonprofit’s scholarship fund! You can learn more about how you can do just that here.