From Stage Fright to Holiday Delight

K-12 Education

From Stage Fright to Holiday Delight

Julie Fisher

Executive Director, NYC Autism Charter School

Ten years ago, six-year-old Timothy Chae froze and couldn’t play a single note at our school’s first annual holiday piano recital. 

Fast forward to last week: Timothy walked confidently to a snowflake adorned upright piano, sat down, played Adele’s “Hello,” and took a bow, as the audience of about 150 applauded. 

“I was so proud of him,” his mother, Grace Chae, said.

Many schools across the country have holiday concerts and recitals, but at the NYC Autism Charter School, the very idea of a holiday recital was revolutionary when our piano teacher, Eileen Buck, first proposed it a decade ago. Now, it’s one of the most important milestones of our school year, when students perform the songs they’ve learned in their weekly piano lessons.

“We’re celebrating an achievement that they’ve made through hard work,” said Buck, a classical pianist.

Buck creates custom piano programs for each student, tailored to their individual abilities. Some students play using clever color codes that Buck has created. Others read one or two notes per page. Others can play full songs — from “Für Elise” to the “Rugrats Theme Song” with standard sheet music.

This approach is aligned with how we do everything at the NYC Autism Charter School: we work to provide individualized, evidence-based instruction to each of our students, allowing them to succeed academically and socially, and to achieve as much self-sufficiency as possible.

I remember holding my breath during Timothy’s first concert. Now, his passion for music and his accomplishment is an inspiration to all of us, and shows the impact that the NYC Autism Charter School is having on our students. 

Many people see limitations when they imagine children on the Autism Spectrum. We see possibilities. When individuals with autism have the right support, they can accomplish amazing things, and develop skills that will last a lifetime. 

Parents packed our recital room at this year’s concert, taking photos and videos of their children’s performances. 

Linh Dinh said she couldn’t believe the progress her son Toby Nguyen, 9, has made: “When he first joined the school, I said, ‘No way. How could Toby ever sit and play the piano?’ And there he is. And each year, he gets better and better.”

Carol Santiago-DeJesus, whose son Ralphie DeJesus is 15 years old, said her son went from playing single notes to playing entire pieces, almost from memory. He also picks out a special tie each year for the concert; this year’s tie was covered with a map of the New York City subway system. 

“He loves the excitement and the music,” she said. “He’s a rock and roll kind of guy. If it were up to him, he’d be playing some heavy metal tunes up there, but Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree appeased his taste.” 

The NYC Autism Charter School is authorized to serve students aged 5 through 21. We currently serve 32 students in East Harlem. Next year, we are delighted to be expanding to an additional location in the South Bronx, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, allowing us to serve even more children and families in New York City.

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