A dapper Fedora is tugged down over his shoulder-length hair. It's a late April evening and Jacob Velazquez is performing a recital accompanied by a trio of string players from the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra at the Florida Institute of Technology. He stole the show.
Jacob is an 8-year old little boy. He was diagnosed with high functioning autism at the age of four about the same time his piano talents emerged. A year later he was admitted into the National Musicians Guild after perfectly performing ten classical pieces from memory. His parents, Willie and Tina Velazquez, report Jacob learned to play Beethoven's "Sonata Op. 49 No. 2" in just three weeks.
A showman to the fullest extent of the word, Jacob performed a classical and electronic dance music mix, singing, dancing, telling jokes, even mc-ing his concert. For someone so young his onstage presence was remarkable.
"Jacob's a smart, bright kid," says Aaron Collins, conductor of the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra. "He was playing cards before the concert, no jitters, cracking jokes. He was fully engaged. Singing and dancing, he received multiple standing ovations from the audience. Jacob also spoke about his personal experience with autism and his connection to his favorite performer Taylor Swift. All from the heart.
"April is National Autism Awareness month. What a shining moment. Letting the immense talent of one small boy demonstrate the untapped potential within so many kids born with autism."
Funds raised at the concert were donated to the Scott Center for Autism in Melbourne and to Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. The disorders are characterized in varying degrees by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors.
Autism Speaks reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children in the U. S. has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). That is a ten-fold increase in prevalence in 40 years. Careful research shows that this increase is only partly explained by improved diagnosis and awareness.
Studies have proven that ASD and autism have their roots in very early brain development. The most obvious signs of autism tend to emerge between two and three years of age. A child at risk may have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, language deficits, inability to make eye contact, and problems reading facial expressions.
Each individual with autism is unique. Many have exceptional abilities in visual, musical and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities.
When Reece Scott was a preschooler in the early 1990s he exhibited many of the signs of the autism spectrum, including not speaking until age four. When he was diagnosed as autistic his parents, Edward and Cheryl Scott, were devastated. The couple struggled in finding information on the best course of treatment. Ultimately diagnosed with Aspergers, Reece has overcome many of its challenges. He graduated from Georgetown University and pursued a master's degree in modern Japanese studies at the University of Oxford in England.
As a result of their disheartening experience, in 2009 the Scotts approached Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne about funding the creation of a research and treatment autism facility. Today, the Scott Center pursues a three-fold mission of clinical service, research, and help to train parents and teachers on effective ways of dealing with autistic children.
A businessman, philanthropist and former senior U. S. government official, Scott founded BEA Systems with two other principals in 1995. With Scott's supervision of sales, marketing, and services for the world-wide field operations, BEA became the 12th largest software company in the world. It was acquired by Oracle Corporation in 2008. Avid advocates for children, the Scotts' philanthropic works have included substantial support for Compassion International, numerous orphanages, and contributions for HIV/AIDS programs in Africa.
The Scotts had a better idea when it came to tackling autism. While much of the financial support for autism revolves around brain research, the Scotts focused their attention and money on better strategies on the behavioral and treatment fronts that enable children to lead more fulfilling lives.
According to the Autism Speaks organization, boys are much more susceptible-- 4 to 1-- compared with girls. Genes play a strong role as do environmental factors. Despite remarkable progress over the past decade, many questions remain unanswered. The Scott Center treats about 60 youngsters a year and diagnoses over 700 more. Typically, the kids range in age range from 2 to 9 years old.
The Center's staff includes a dozen board certified behavior analysts as well as another 25 registered behavior technicians. It offers one-on-one interaction between the behavior analyst and the participant that ranges from 15 to 30 hours a week. In December 2014 the Scott Center opened a clinic in Vero Beach.
Behavior analysts are interested in figuring out why people behave the way they do. According to the Scott Center, its therapies and procedures are administered based on the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that through decades of research has proven to be the most effective form of therapy.
Early screening is essential.
"One of the most important things parents can do is to learn the early signs of autism and become familiar with developmental milestones that your child should be reaching," says Dr. Michael Kelly, the Scott Center's executive director.
"The goal is to improve the quality of life of individuals. We want to have that child enter first grade as symptom free as possible so you can't tell a difference from the other students. The earlier the intervention the better. If you start at age 2 to 4 with the assessment and begin the ABA treatment there is a 50-50 chance that will occur."
Perhaps the most important component of ABA is positive reinforcement for good behaviors and discouraging negative ones to improve a variety of skills.
"It's more than just rewarding good behavior," Kelly relates, "it also means strengthening something to make it more durable and long lasting. While there is no known cure for autism, research has definitely shown that treatment methods based on the principles of ABA can produce lasting behavior change for most individuals with autism."
On a stormy June afternoon thunderheads are sliding east, but for a group of autistic children it's bright and sunny. The kids are participating in an equine therapy program where they learn to trust the horses and take care of them. More and more the benefits of working with horses are being trumpeted by autism therapists across the U.S.
"All that sensory input of riding and taking care of their horse helps the kids become less anxious and more focused," says Cristina Knowles, a caregiver who works with autistic children in Vero Beach and is the mother of an autistic son.
It's not all about riding. Students bone up on horsemanship skills each visit which lasts about an hour.
“The kids learn to slow things down and it teaches them responsibility and compassion,” Knowles relates. ‘They have to groom, feed and give the horse a bath after riding. Tune into what the animal needs. It's not about them. When they’re taking care of and riding their horse the kids are on top of the world. It gives them confidence that they can transfer to other aspects of life."
Since 1992, Special Equestrians of the Treasure Coast has been a leader in therapeutic riding programs. For a child or adult with special needs, sitting in the saddle provides a whole different view of life. According to Special Equestrians, the power and personality of the horse improves the muscle strength and coordination of the rider. At the same time, communicating with the horse hones verbalization and social skills.
Special Equestrians is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International that promotes safety and optimal outcomes for individuals with special needs.
"A lot of these kids have self-esteem problems," says Vickie Penly, the longtime director of the program. "They've waited all week to come so we see loads of smiles. We teach them to ride as independently as possible."
A dedicated group of instructors and 25 volunteers keep the facility running smoothly. Stabled in the barn are nine horses, including quarter horses, a Morgan, several former polo ponies and four other ponies. Each of the horses has been tutored to be patient and even-tempered. One of the favorites is Picassa, a 14-year old filly, a former polo pony.
"She arrived with one speed, run as fast as she can," Penly recalls with a laugh. "Picassa has a great temperament and is really smart so she was easily trained to walk and trot, and left that speed behind. She seems to have great empathy for the autistic students. The new ones can give mixed signals, pushing and pulling on the horse at the same time. Picassa doesn't get frustrated. She's very patient and careful with them, takes it all in stride. The perfect horse for what we do."
Some of these horses have their own challenges such as being neglected or cast away by their owners. The horses want to build trust and to begin a new life as well.
The responsibility of grooming and caring for their horse enables the students to see the world from a new perspective-- the horse's. Watching the two interact I'm thinking there are similarities. It's difficult to figure out what is going on inside. We wonder what they're thinking and feeling. Here's a thought: horses don't see a boy or girl with autism. They just see a caring youngster.
Shortly after Jacob's fourth birthday, Tina Velazquez heard a song coming from the family piano at their Pembroke Pines home. Her husband had been playing the night prior, but Willie was now at work. When Tina entered the room, it was Jacob playing.
"I was shocked, couldn't believe my eyes. So I asked, 'How did you do that?' Jacob turned and looked at me and said, 'I watched Daddy.'"
Soon the couple began searching for a piano teacher. It wasn't easy, most instructors didn't want to work with a four year old. Finally, they found someone willing to take on the challenge and Jacob's musical talents began to grow exponentially.
"His teacher would give him a song and he could play it back instantly while with other kids it could take a month or more," Tina says.
A few months later in December 2011, Jacob was diagnosed with autism. He got suddenly sad or angry. Tina initially tiptoed around her son so as not to set him off. She viewed his future as bleak. Then one day both parents changed their mindset.
"I was watching him play and it dawned on me he was still the little boy that we knew before autism was diagnosed," Tina recalls. "I decided autism would not define Jacob, it was just a small part of him. That was huge step for me. Instead of dwelling on Jacob's disability, I began to concentrate on his unlimited capabilities."
Jacob's musical talents have been spotlighted on "Good Morning America." He's performed Christmas recitals and played the national anthem at a Miami Heat basketball game. At age seven, he released his first album "Jacob" of popular classical piano pieces swirled with uplifting electronic dance music. It was produced by multi-award winning producer and songwriter Hal S. Batt in Miami.
The boy's biggest hero is pop superstar Taylor Swift. One day Jacob was videoed playing a medley of seven songs from Swift's most recent album, "1989." Autism Speaks tweeted it out and the video went viral. Swift discovered Jacob's tribute and re-tweeted it. She invited the family to meet her at her Miami concert in October 2015. That evening Jacob presented Swift with his own CD.
"Taylor inspires Jacob to keep striving to be his best," Tina says. "We're hopeful that Jacob will inspire other families that are touched by autism. Just because you are diagnosed with autism, it doesn't mean you aren't capable of great things."