Norwin High teen finds release in music
Along the drum line of Norwin High School's marching band, it's the musical talent of Christopher Brozek that stands out, not his disability.
Brozek, 19, has a mild form of autism and, over the years, music therapy has helped him find a language with which to communicate.
The role music has played in his life is the subject of a documentary, "Autism: Influence in Music," which was made by his cousin, Maria Satira, 21, of Murrysville, a senior at Robert Morris University.
Satira made the video in November for her "Advanced Television" course at Robert Morris. She plans to enter it in the Broadcast Education Association's Student Documentary Festival.
"I've always looked up to Christopher because he's got a disability,• but isn't disabled because he's so talented," she said. "Seeing someone who does so well, naturally, inspires me."
"It's a story that needs told, but Christopher is unable to tell it."
As a baby, Brozek developed just like any other infant or toddler, but when he was 3, his parents, Lisa and Gary Brozek, started noticing changes.
"When he was younger, he had started to talk normally, but then, all of the sudden, he wasn't saying as much and would just sit and watch television," Lisa said. "We'd try to get his attention, but it seemed like he just wasn't hearing us."
Doctors diagnosed Christopher with pervasive developmental disorder, which is a mild form of autism.
The diagnosis devastated the family and made the most mundane tasks daunting because of Christopher's sensitivities to noise and crowded social situations.
"A lot of sounds, like a baby crying, just really upset him, we had difficulty going to restaurants and stores," Lisa said.
"He'd have to wear headphones to drown out the sounds."
The Brozek family enrolled Christopher in early-intervention classes, where doctors and therapists worked with him to address several areas in which he struggled, ranging from speech to day-to-day tasks.
Christopher responded best to music therapy, which he started when he was about 4 years old, Lisa said.
The music-therapy sessions inspired Christopher to pursue music further, and he was drawn to the drums.
The family bought Christopher his first drum set when he was in the sixth grade. Almost immediately, Christopher had a breakthrough, Lisa said.
"Christopher had been listening to Los Lonely Boys, and I thought he was listening to the CD loudly," she said. "When I got downstairs, I realized he was playing the drums along with the CD. I just couldn't believe it."
Christopher's love of music carried on to his academic career in the Norwin School District, where he is one of about 40 students with autism. He has played in several of the district's bands and ensembles throughout his academic career.
When the family attended Christopher's first school concert, his sister, Caitlin, said she felt uneasy and worried about her brother.
"I didn't know how it would work or if he'd end up confused or upset," she said. "I was scared he'd stand out, but you'd have never known he had any type of disability."
Music is his thing
Kim Glover, who teaches percussion to students in grades five through 12, started working with Christopher five years ago.
Glover describes Christopher as a dedicated student and perfectionist.
"Christopher has to play his music correctly and will not stop until it is correct," Glover said. "Percussion seems to be his niche, and I'm amazed every day with what he is able to do, not as an autistic student, but a student in general."
Although Christopher's classmates initially picked on him, the verbal jabs and harassment slowed as his musical talents were revealed, Lisa said.
Caitlin credits Christopher's love of music for his success in high school, both academically and socially.
"I think a lot of people really respected him, because he found his niche and established a group of friends, which is hard to do," Caitlin said. "Music gave him something to look forward to every day."
As Christopher grew older and became more involved in music, he calmed down, and his anxieties seemed to fade away, Lisa said.
He now has a calm demeanor and often sings softly to himself or taps out drum beats with his hands on furniture or his lap.
Christopher has no intentions of slowing his career in music after high school.
"I want to go to college and play," Christopher said with a smile.
Lisa said she hopes her son inspires other families dealing with similar situations.
"There is something out there that will just click -- it's just a matter of taking the time to find it," she said. "There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and every child can do something wonderful."
Note: To see the documentary, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v?lSd7p7nF_50
Autism is a developmental disability that occurs in the first three years of life and affects development of social and communication skills.
Severity varies in each person, and there is no known cause.
It affects one out of every 150 children and has become more common than childhood cancer, according to the Autism Society of America.
Music is one of the most basic forms of the human language, which is why people on the autism spectrum respond so well to it, said Linda Sanders, an adjunct professor of music therapy at Duquesne University.
The brain processes music easier than most other forms of communications due to its rhythmic nature, Sanders said.
"Music is organized sound, and those on the autism spectrum find its rhythmic nature to be comforting," she said. "Music allows their brain to process more effectively and efficiently."
"Organization is what a lot of folks on the autism spectrum don't have because their brains aren't working properly. Music helps pull it all together."
Sanders recommended music therapy for all patients on the autism spectrum to help further communicative skills.
"Children who have had music therapy as part of their treatment appear to make significant progress," she said. "It teaches them to learn to play a part, pay attention, and it helps learn a skill, which requires discipline."