Individuals with ASD often find it challenging to maneuver social situations. That's because they tend to focus on details, which restricts their ability to understand implicit social cues, said Andrew Gerber, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia Medical Center. That explains why music is often more appealing: the rules are better defined. "One of the real advantages of using music for a kid with autism is that it's a chance to be able to teach him rules that are knowable," said Gerber. "They can feel like they've mastered something. It makes sense to them."
Jeremy found his calling in percussion. At the age of 2, his mother, Julie, whose name has also been changed, noticed him drumming on almost any object around the house. While he would often do it out of anxiety, his beat was always rhythmic, she said. "It became a source of pride for him because people would respond to it," she added. At 6, Jeremy was enrolled at the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at New York University, where he remained for two years. She later enrolled him at the Rebecca School, one of the few DIR-based schools in New York.
But along with attending therapeutic DIR-model schools, Jeremy has undergone biomedical intervention for years, Julie said. Increased cholesterol intake has improved his posture, she said, even though he still hunches sometimes.
Just back from school, Jeremy darted around his house, a spacious Chelsea loft where he lives with his mother and his sister Zoe, 15. A pair of white earphones dangled from Jeremy's ears, connected to a matchbox-sized iPod. In spite of his poor fine-motor skills and thumbs that are slightly longer and lower-set than usual, Jeremy swiped deftly through the list of songs on the device's tiny screen.
"It's his favorite thing in the whole wide world," said Julie, who recently noticed her son listening to the sultry rhythm of Bob Dylan and Jerry Joseph. "Thank God!" she added. "It's better than Chris Brown."
For his 13th birthday, she bought him a bright blue drum set. Along the wall, five other drums are lined up -- two tablas, an Indian hand drum, a children's one made of plastic and two African cylindrical drums. A guitar lay on a side-table, unnoticed.
Seated on an ottoman, two brushes in one hand and a drumstick in the other, Jeremy began to play. As he drummed a beat, Julie danced, waving her arms and stomping her feet to his rhythm.
"In music, he functions at a higher level," she said.