Ethan Walmark's dad sang The Beatles’ “I Will” to his child every night. It’s the gentle type of song that a proud father would sing to his son, with lyrics like, “Love you forever and forever/Love you with all my heart.”
When Ethan was four, he played the song by ear. At five years old, he knows The Doors, the tunes from Glee and just about anything else he hears. For Ethan, who has autism, music is medicine, therapy and a rare gift
“When people see our son and all the attributes he has, it takes a little of the pain away because I’m in pain 24/7,” said his mother, Allison Ziering Walmark.
While Ethan can belt out a bevy of tunes despite being too short to reach the piano pedals, his disorder makes social interactions difficult. When Mike, his dad, played The Beatles over an iPhone, Ethan started hysterically shouting to turn it off. He often shouts and has problems focusing.
The balance between the harmony of his music and the discord of his autism is a regular part of the Walmark family as they adjust to their always-changing lives.
“You’ll always have thoughts and goals and dreams and they may change, but that’s OK,” said Mike. “Life is messy.”
Parenting experts gave the family differing advice on how to deal with Ethan’s passion for music. Some told them to put a stop to it, since music allows the child to escape to a different world rather than developing human relationships. Others told them to let Ethan embrace what he loves.
“We just want our son to be happy, whatever that means to him,” said Mike. “It’s not about us anymore. It’s about him.”
So far, Chris Robison, a musician and instructor, has been meeting with Ethan for several weeks. The first song Ethan played for him at Half Mile Studios near Coleytown Elementary School was The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”
“It just blew my mind,” said Robison. “I never met any musician who can get all the chords like that.”
Robison has had students with a variety of labels, such as dyslexic, and he himself knows something about them. Beginning in the late 1960s, he was an openly gay pioneering artist in the New York City music scene. In his career, he has recorded with John Lennon, Keith Richards and other music legends.
“Here comes a kid with another label – autistic – and I never felt that way when I hit him with the music,” Robison said. “Labels are convenient but certainly don’t tell the whole story. To me, he’s my regular playing buddy.”
With Ethan displaying a gift for music at only five years old, the sky is the limit as he develops his craft and learns to socialize.
“He’s a great kid and it’s some kind of a miracle,” Robison said. “I tell people but you can’t really see unless you’re there.”
Music is an outlet for Ethan, and his parents have their own. Since 2009, the family has raised more than $200,000 to find a cure for autism. For this year’s Walk Now for Autism Speaks event in Westchester County, the family’s “E-Team” hopes to raise more than $140,000.
To do so, Mike taps his colleagues in the finance world. Allison uses a popular Facebook page to reach out for donations. The walk, which draws thousands of people, is a comfort for the family.
“It’s nice to be part of a larger community and know you’re not alone, because unless you have a child with special needs, you don’t understand what is to live with a child with special needs,” said Allison.
There are different levels of autism, but symptoms typically include difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication, intense tantrums and a lack of language development. Ethan is diagnosed as being on the "autism spectrum." He's more high-functioning than other autistic people, but still displays some of the syptoms.
Medical professionals have breakthroughs in coverage over the years, but progress has been slow. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 110 children are autistic.
“There’s an epidemic that’s going to explode…and if [the statistics are accurate], these kids are going to turn into grown ups and this is another one of those healthcare issues we’re going to have to face,” said Mike.
The parents credit the Westport school district for helping Ethan develop. His little sister, Eliza, 4, also helps him out. All of the therapy, whether it’s music, speech or something else, has the same goal in mind.
“We love him,” said Mike. “We want his life to be as easy as possible so that he can cope with society.
“And society can cope with him,” Alison added.
To donate to the E-Team, follow this link. Walk Now for Autism Speaks for Fairfield and Westchester counties is on Sunday, June 5 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. All event proceeds will, according to the organization, "increase awareness about the growing autism epidemic, fund innovative autism research and family services, and advocate for the needs of individuals with autism and their families."