This guest Q&A is with Billy Mann, a proud husband, father of four, autism family advocate and activist who happens to be a Grammy nominated record producer and songwriter who’s worked with a Who’s Who in music from Burt Bacharach and Carole King to P!nk and John Legend. He is a national board member of Autism Speaks and has given many speeches on Autism family life, from 10 Downing Street to the White House.
Hi Billy – can you tell our readers how you first got involved in the autism community?
Like lots of parents, my first involvement was trying to wrap my arms around the initial PDD-NOS diagnosis of my oldest son 15 years ago. That first process was more about all the things I didn’t know and not so much about what I could do to become an advocate for others. I was focused on what I could do to help flood my son with services as quickly as possible.
In the years that followed my younger son was also diagnosed with autism. Both of them are on different points on the spectrum. At the time, my music career was starting to gain enormous traction but a couple of the artist managers and even record executives I was working with privately advised that I shouldn’t mention that my children were diagnosed which I thought was ridiculous. Finding my footing as a family advocate really started from meeting other parents and individuals who needed help and seeing there was a lack of knowledge about autism overall. That fired me up and motivated me to get involved.
How are your sons doing today?
They are doing great and most importantly, they are both really happy. Regardless if you have a kid with autism or not, the main hope for any parent is to have happy kids. With guidance from family and community, they are both still navigating their autism diagnoses in their own ways and we are focused on how each of their talents can lead them to different opportunities.
We recently interviewed your wonderful wife Gena Mann about her Wolf + Friends App. You must be really proud of her.
From my experience watching Gena and the “wolfpack” of other Wolf + Friends moms in action, a special needs Mom advocates for their children more fiercely than anyone. I see my wife do that every day for all of our kids. What I think makes Wolf + Friends a great opportunity as an app is the relief it brings to autism moms who find themselves facing isolation. It’s free and with a swipe and click, they’re connecting with like-minded moms near where they live, and they can ask questions about everything from services and therapies to playdates via this app. Gena and her friend Carissa took their experiences as moms to create something available to others so they can end that feeling of isolation that many moms feel when they are working through a diagnosis. It’s pretty extraordinary. Let me tell you, that emphasis on understanding and community makes Wolf + Friends a fast track solution for any special needs mom who might feel a little isolated or in search of other moms who “get it.”
Growing up on the autism spectrum I was positively impacted by music therapy to help me with my early development. During your travels have you seen music impact our community at all?
There are so many ways that music has widened the funnel of opportunities for our community – such as social abilities & cognitive development. Music is always a positive addition to any conversation. There are also some amazing musicians on the autism spectrum. My younger son Felix has perfect pitch. Ethan Walmark, another individual on the spectrum, I met when he was very little and, when he was at the piano with me at my house and I started to play some chords and Ethan was able to play them back instantly. Both Felix and Ethan are performing in their own respective music programs and bands with other musicians their age.
People are also trying to collaborate. MTI International Founder/CEO Freddie Gershon for example has a whole music program that he championed that’s called Spectrum of Hope.
You’ve participated in so many events over the years to support the autism community. Any personal favorites?
It would be impossible for me not to highlight the work I did with President Obama. It all began with a phone call when he was a Senator and that developed into having him come to my house when he was running for President the first time. We negotiated a dedicated autism page on Obama’s website and then I got to work on the autism policy platform with his team. Years later, with that friendship in tact, Gena, my son Jasper and I were invited to the Oval Office to see what is now the Autism CARES Act passed into law. It was completely life changing to see my son receive the first pen from the hand of the President.
What’s one misconception about autism today that you would like to see debunked?
What I would like to see is a real call to action by educators, legislators and health professionals to examine why the prevalence of autism is rising. I would like them to look at it analytically and assess the economic and social impact it has on local communities, rural communities and link arms in a much more collaborative way to address the urgent needs of this growing community for the long term.
That’s sort of the long term answer. In the short term, what I hope people know about autism is that autism is not a childhood disorder, it’s a lifetime journey for an individual and their families. That child will become a teen, will become an adult and—depending on the individual– will still require acceptance, services, employment, housing, forward thinking therapies, and more. It’s not a one-dimensional experience and we can’t advocate for autism like it’s a one-size-fits-all experience.
What are some of your hopes and goals for your sons in the future?
There are no limits on what they can achieve. I have 4 incredible children – each one is perfectly crafted. They are perfect souls. I will never put a glass ceiling over their heads and what they can accomplish, and none of them will ever give up on pursuing what they want to achieve in this world. They are perfect and they are my greatest advisors and teachers.
Editor’s note: I had the esteemed privilege to meet Billy at an autism fundraising event many years ago. He’s a strong advocate who truly has a passion for positive change for our community. I’d encourage all of our readers on this blog to follow Billy on Twitter to keep up with what he’s doing! Thanks everyone! – Kerry Magro
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