Autistic youth finds his voice through music

SHELBYVILLE, Ind. (AP) — The noise coming from the small bedroom sounded like singing, but Grant Thompson was sure that couldn't be the case.

His 8-year-old son, John, was autistic and hadn't started speaking yet. He must have the radio on or be listening to a CD, Thompson thought.

But when he opened the door, there was his son, playing a song on the keyboard and mimicking lyrics in a pitch-perfect melody.

"Music is what unlocked John's tongue," Grant Thompson said.

Through song, John Mikkiah Thompson, now 18, has found a way to overcome his limitations and express himself in ways he never knew possible. He also will release his first album of original music this month and headline a concert at Center Grove High School on Sunday.

His goal is to become a contemporary Christian music star. But he also hopes to be an inspiration to other people struggling with autism, letting them know that the condition doesn't mean they can't achieve their goals.

"It feels good to know I'm moving people. People come up to me afterward crying, and it's very interesting to hear that I touch their lives when I start to sing," he said.

John Thompson suffers from Asperger syndrome, an autism-related disorder that has hindered his social development and communication skills.

Doctors classify him as high-functioning. He works part time restocking shelves for the Johnson County Public Library District, and he's active with his church, Word of Life Fellowship.

But nowhere is his ability more evident than at the keyboard. While his mother, Tammy Thompson, plays 12-string guitar for the worship team at their church, John Thompson sings at his keyboard.

Though he can't read sheet music, his mind can pick up and memorize chords and melodies after one listen.

His father will work for hours on lyrics for a song, and John Thompson will play with different note combinations and chords until he settles on what sounds right.

He's won singing contests in Shelbyville and stood in front of the crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to sing the national anthem.

He has performed at churches throughout Indiana and Kentucky, sharing his story along the way. His tagline is "Autistic to Artistic," which sums up the way he wants to change perception through his performances.

"When you meet him and talk to him, you know that he's autistic. But when he gets behind the mic, it disappears. If you could walk in to the middle of a performance, you'd never think he was anything but an 18-year-old musician," Grant Thompson said.

His parents introduced him to music. Tammy Thompson is a talented singer and guitar player, and Grant Thompson was trying to learn the piano.

After buying a small electric keyboard to set up in their rural Shelbyville home, he started taking lessons to learn the basics.

"I quickly realized it just wasn't going to happen. I was just not good," Grant Thompson said.

But the instrument caught the attention of John, who was 5 at the time. He was fascinated by the machine that, with the push of a few buttons, could make a wide spectrum of sounds.

"You could just tell by his eyes, how they lit up when he pushed the keys, that something was there," Grant Thompson said. "Now we know, the keyboard was never meant for me. It was supposed to be for John."

By the time he was 7, he was playing entire songs from the Christian albums that Grant and Tammy Thompson kept at their house. He played entirely by ear, hearing a series of notes and then repeating them perfectly on his keyboard.

Soon after, John Thompson started singing, uttering the first words that he ever had spoken. He hasn't stopped since, his parents said.

Grant and Tammy Thompson home-schooled their youngest son, in the hopes of avoiding the cruelty that he might experience from other children because of his autism. So in between the school work, he would go to the keyboard and practice for hours at a time.

John Thompson soon was performing with his church, as well as playing for family and friends. But outside church, he never had a true outlet for his voice.

That changed last year. After a church performance in Carmel, he was introduced to church member James Newton, who is the director of marketing for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He invited John Thompson to sing the national anthem before opening day of practice for the Indianapolis 500.

Newton also passed his story on to a friend, Scott Borchetta, a music producer in Nashville, Tenn. Borchetta, who discovered talents such as Taylor Swift, the Band Perry and Rascal Flatts, allowed John Thompson and his parents to come to Nashville for a full session at his Love Shack Recording Studio, free of charge.

"I was thinking the whole time, 'Help me Lord. Give me the lyrics. Make my voice healthy. Don't let me forget the lyrics. Don't make my voice crack,'" John Thompson said.

He worked with producer Chris Rowe for three hours, recording three original songs and three cover versions. John Thompson did each one in a single take, something that rarely happens even with professional artists, Rowe said.

"(John) is such a special person. And he's beyond average, talent-wise," Rowe said.

The recording became the basis for John Thompson's first independent album. The family has ordered 500 copies of the album, which are for sale on his Facebook page.

And as he's performed at churches throughout Indiana, he's been given more opportunities.

A Center Grove-area youth organization, Dancing with a Purpose, invited him to perform during its weekly meeting. The organizers were so touched by his story that they decided to take up his cause and introduce him to the community in general.

"His talent outshined everything, but he was so humble," said Emmalea Butler, one of the Dancing with a Purpose organizers.

Marcia Dukes, another Dancing with a Purpose organizer, asked him what his dream was, and he had two answers — he wanted to sing with Casting Crowns, a Christian band he adores, and to have a full concert of his own.

For the past month, Dancing with a Purpose has been working to make that happen. They arranged for John Thompson and his parents to travel to Fort Wayne to see Casting Crowns.

John Thompson was able to meet the band backstage, and he showed off his singing to lead singer Mark Hall.

Members of Dancing with a Purpose also helped arrange a solo concert at Center Grove High School.

"There's a pureness to his music, a genuineness. His motivation for doing it is pure, and that is what is so evident when he sings," Dukes said.

For the past month, John Thompson has been preparing for the concert. He's put together a set list of 11 songs, mostly original compositions.

He also has ramped up his weekend performances, traveling to churches in Vevay, Greenwood and Taylor University.

But if he's anxious about taking the stage, it doesn't come through once the music starts.

"He's not afraid of the mic at all. He holds it right up to his mouth and starts singing," said Susan Fuller, a Dancing with a Purpose organizer.

The Thompson family intends to keep building an audience and scheduling performances. The goal is to make a living creating music, and he intends to keep working to make that a reality, John Thompson said.

"He wants to be a Christian music star. He wants to sing for the rest of his life. That's what he was put here to do," Grant Thompson said.


Information from: Daily Journal, http://www.thejournalnet.com

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