EXCHANGE: Brothers with autism thriving as musicians
Forced to choose only one song to play, Jason, 23, makes a quick decision. “Drowning,” he says to his brother, Christopher, 24, as he plugs in the black electric guitar he named “Axl.” Jason names all of his guitars.
Christopher, who is seated in front of the family’s grand piano, wordlessly launches into the boy band’s ballad. The way he seamlessly picks up with his younger brother is the result of hours of practice, a natural proficiency for the instrument or some combination of the two.
There were hard times when the boys were growing up — there are still moments when the couple has to teach their sons social cues that seem to be instinctual for most adults — but in the Pleasant household, there is never a dull moment, and performances like this are more the norm than the exception.
Christopher was in the third grade and Jason was in the first grade when they were both diagnosed with mild forms of autism. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that 1 in 59 American children — 1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls — is born with an autism spectrum disorder.
Jason, who wears a black Rugrats T-shirt with a jacket pulled over it, perks up at the first mention of acting, singing, playing instruments — any kind of performance interests him. He wants to be an entertainer and has started to amass a social media and YouTube following through his musical parody and dance videos. His YouTube channel, MyJazzyMac (Jukebox James), has more than 7,000 followers, he says with pride.
“I’m probably on the verge of 8,000,” he says, “but I’m getting ahead of myself.”
Jason can break into song and dance or recite monologues — his best is an impression of Whoopi Goldberg’s hyena character in the Lion King — on the spot. He and Gwendolyn both volunteer at the Quincy Public Library — Jason as a children’s entertainer.
At the moment, he is focused on an upcoming Genevieve Goings show in Iowa. He has interacted with the Grammy-nominated songwriter and star of Disney Junior’s “Choo Choo Soul” online in the past, and he reached out to her on social media to tell her he was attending. She said she will make sure he gets up on stage with her.
A 2014 John Wood Community College graduate, Christopher is the stats guy in the family. He can recall the name, band, album and release date of his extensive music library. A huge “Price is Right” fan, he can quickly conjure the year Bob Barker started hosting the show — at the time it was known as the “New Price is Right” — the year Bob Barker resigned and the year Drew Carey took over.
A large silver cross hangs from a chain around Christopher’s neck, and many of his conversations work their way back around to God. He comes by it naturally. There is a long line of preachers in the Pleasant family tree, and several of his cousins are preachers. Otis followed his father into the profession, and that could be what drew Christopher to it.
“I’ve learned over the years that I need to trust God,” he says, “that everyone has a purpose.”
A favorite story in the Pleasant household, Christopher delivered his first sermon at 2 years old. Gwendolyn still laughs when remembering the way her toddler made his way up to the pulpit and threw his hands in the air in exultation.
He was saved at 9 when he made a confession of faith at the Cathedral of Worship. After that, he began reading scripture from the Bible to his parents every night and discussing with them what was said. He has delivered sermons over the years at First Baptist Church and Bethel AME, making him the fourth generation in the family to become a preacher.
“I ask God what he wants me to talk about,” Christopher says, “and what God says goes.”
Christopher may be a little less competitive than Jason, saying he would someday like to team up professionally with his brother, who is more interested in a solo career.
The siblings interact the way any set of brothers less than two years apart would. At times, they irritate each other, but when recalling their most memorable performances, almost all were done together. They’ve performed in Quincy High School’s New Faces production and Dancing with the Local Stars. They’ve done open mic nights and regularly perform together at Bethel AME Church.
As the boys grew and matured, their parents’ difficulties and fears shifted. The Pleasants used to worry more about how to keep their sons focused in school and make sure they interacted well with others. Now they must negotiate how much independence their sons can handle.
Gwendolyn was terrified the first time the boys took off on their own, with Christopher driving. She still waits up most nights when they are out.
“We can’t react to them as children, we have to treat them as young men,” Gwendolyn says when Christopher mentions the 2016 Jeep Compass Latitude he recently bought. “Christopher is very dependable. He goes exactly where he says he is going.”
Each time the boys leave the home without their parents, Otis and Gwendolyn take it on faith that they have adequately prepared them. People with autism often have difficulty in social situations, Gwendolyn explains — simple things like deciphering the difference between seriousness and sarcasm can be nearly impossible.
“There are still challenges, but as they’ve gotten older, they understand a lot more than they did when they were younger,” Otis says.
With Otis and Gwendolyn both retired, they are starting to consider what happens to their sons once they’re gone. Gwendolyn mentions that some larger cities have entire complexes devoted to helping people with autism function as independently as possible.
They are preparing to sell their home and plan to return to Vallejo, California, where they lived before they moved to Quincy in 2001 and where most of their family remains.
“Both function a lot better in society today,” Gwendolyn says. “We had to teach them respectful behavior. We never let autism be an excuse for bad behavior.”
Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, //bit.ly/2rRxfJL
Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, //www.whig.com
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