This is the sixth episode of Loog B-Sides, a series of conversations that celebrates and shines a spotlight on some of our fave Loog Community members. You can also listen to excerpts from this feature and others from Loog B-Sides on Spotify.
Our ultimate goal has always been to help create more musicians in this world, because it's been proven that music makes us smarter, nicer and happier. It's no secret that music education helps kids lead better lives, improving cognitive skills, stimulating the mind and making them more empathic, among other benefits.
And the best part is that these amazing benefits are not just reserved for kids! Adults who receive music education tend to improve their brain health, happiness and quality of life. Few things can stimulate our brain like music does. This is one of the reasons why many organizations use music education as a tool to help people, as is the case of Jazz Hands for Autism.
In the words of Founder and Executive Director Ifunanya Nweke, with whom we had the pleasure to sit down and talk, they "provide workforce development training, specifically that in the music industry, to adults on the autism spectrum and everybody else who is neuro divergent."
Jazz Hands for Autism is a small to mid-size nonprofit organization based out of Culver City, California. And in this Loog B-Sides Episode we're going through the work and purpose of Jazz Hands for Autism, as well as learning how music education can improve the lives of neuro divergent people.
Don't feel like reading? Listen to an excerpt of Ifunanya's interview here.
What is the main purpose of Jazz Hands for Autism?
We are an innovative and award nominated answer to an age old problem, the foremost talent advocacy group for musicians on the autism spectrum. And through that, we're changing the way that individuals who are on the autism spectrum are taught and included in different communities, starting with the entertainment industry.
We focus on music because we realize and recognize that music is much more than just an aesthetic pleasure. It's much more than just, “oh, this feels nice, this sounds nice.” It's actually a really powerful tool for social connection and social mobility. And seeing that adults with autism are the most unemployed segment of our population and have the least self-determination of any other demographic group, we found it to be very imperative that we uncover ways to change these dire stats, using a tool that can be accessible. AKA, music.
Through our music based educational, vocational and placement programs, we’re essentially creating access to expression and employment for people with autism who are often a forgotten, but incredibly important part of our population.
Are all people in the autism spectrum skilled at music? Which is kind of a stereotype.
After watching movies like 'Rain Man', many people walk away with the idea that everybody who's on the autism spectrum is a Savant or has Savant level skills, but that's not the case. There's a saying that goes, “when you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.” While there may be similarities in some of the challenges that people with autism face, some of the affordances that they have or some of their idiosyncrasies, each person with autism has very various strengths and challenges.
This is part of what neurodiversity champions and why it's so important, because even within the autism spectrum, there is a myriad and so many different ways that a person’s strengths can be in one area and challenges can be in another. But for another person's autism, it can be reversed or somewhere in between.
Now, this being said, studies do show that individuals with autism may have more of an affinity for music than other typically developing individuals. So music based programs and activities could be very beneficial to the development and meaning-making in the lives of people who have autism. What I would say is that a safe way to approach this is to ask the person in the spectrum what their interests and talents are.
How old are your students?
We work with individuals on the spectrum of various ages, depending on the program. The first program that we ever had was the Jazz Hands Concert Series, which provides a performance platform for people with autism of all ages. Then we have our junior academy, which is one of our newer programs. For that one, we provide in-home and Zoom based music lessons to youth on the autism spectrum. That's from ages 8 to 17. And then, our biggest program is the Jazz Hands Musicians Academy, which is our workforce development and vocational program that provides music based training and placement. It's for adults on the autism spectrum who are 18 and older.
In addition to those three programs, we have our music library that we just recently launched. That one's more of an initiative and not necessarily a program per se, because it can be attached to any of our other programs. And what that is, it's the first ever music library, featuring original compositions and songs exclusively created by neuro divergent composers and songwriters. For this one, you can be of any age. If you're neuro divergent and you wrote or composed an original song, you can submit it to Jazz Hands. We would then evaluate it and, if it's selected, add it to our music library. Then we would go out and pitch that to different music supervisors for film, TV, advertising, YouTube, etc.
You say that 1-3% of the world's population are on the spectrum. Do you think that number is climbing?
Oh yeah, definitely. I've read many studies explaining that we're not fully sure why that's the case. We don't know if it's just due to the actual increasing prevalence of people with autism, or if it's just an increase in the efficacy of the tools used to diagnose individuals who have autism. It could be one or the other or a combination of both, but that number is growing steadily in the United States.
Basically, if you look at the stats every four years, there's an increase in the number of people with autism. It's gone from 1 in 121 to 1 in 54 people who have autism in America. That number is also growing worldwide as well. So, that 1 to 3% is not super accurate because there are some places where diagnostic tools are not very efficient or effective. We actually don't even know the total number of people with autism, it’s just based on some research that has been done, just a generalized sample, but it's probably much higher than 1 - 3%.
And you know, there are many people who have autism that have other neuro divergences as well. It's very frequent to meet a person who has autism, but also has anxiety or ADHD or bipolarity. Many people who are neuro divergent actually have several different neuro divergences occurring at the same time.
What do you think about the term 'autism'?
There's people who say, “oh, we're all on the autism spectrum,” and that's not fair. Of course we all have different idiosyncrasies and different ways that we see the world, but when it comes to autism, it's actually a diagnosis. People with autism have a lot of challenges and barriers in the world, so to say that we're all on the autism spectrum really undermines a lot of those challenges and barriers.
Then also on the flip side, for a while there has been people ashamed of autism and they would hide it. And now there's a lot of people embracing the autism label and using it as an empowering term, specially on Social Media. And we don't wanna take away that tool of empowerment from them.
On the one hand, we don't want to say, “oh, everybody has autism” because that's not true. Cause there are very real challenges and barriers that people with autism face. And on the other hand, we don't wanna take away the word autism because many people are now using that as a way to empower themselves and promote awareness and acceptance in society.
What are these pathways you enable and where do your graduates work?
I just mentioned earlier, many people with autism have very real challenges and barriers. One of those areas where there's a lot of challenges is employment. Even beyond autism, getting employment in general is really tough for many adults, right? Whether or not they are neuro divergent. However, for individuals who have autism, that road is even much more difficult. And that's due to social challenges that many people with autism face: being able to interact, read social cues and follow the social standards that we utilize to interact with each other. Whether they're reasonable or not, that's a different conversation. But some people with autism may not understand many of these social standards, and that makes it more difficult for them to find a job and actually maintain it.
Based on the research that I've done, music can help alleviate some of these challenges. Leveraging existing musical interests can assist with creating access for learning those skills, and this is what Jazz Hands does to teach other generalizable skills or transferable skills. So for example, if a person is already interested in music and then you help them learn how to prepare for an audition using their music, they're learning a lot of social skills in that process.
Starting from a place of interest is really important. At Jazz Hands, we start with music, and in addition to that, we leverage the power of music to improve the learning process of people with autism, and also the way that they're included in their community. When it comes to education, if you look at many different programs, music is a big part of learning. For example, the “Hello” song when you first walk into class in kindergarten, or learning your ABCs with the song. Music is a really big part of learning. But for some reason, we, along the way, forget that.
Music is important to help people learn new skills, especially neuro divergent individuals. In learning those skills, our musicians are able to better succeed in different employment locations, especially those that are music based. Part of what we do is advocate for them. We go to different places and say, “Hey, are you looking for entertainment? We have really talented musicians that can meet your entertainment needs.”
Our graduates and students have performed on over 150 stages, in many different places including Culver City, Pasadena and Carson. They've performed and DJ'ed in the L.A. Zoo, for private parties, for politicians, and things of that nature.
Beyond performance, our musicians are also interested in teaching music. So we have partnerships with a couple of schools, where our musicians are able to go in with a job coach and be able to teach music to other students. Some of whom are also neuro divergent. So that's another part of what we do at Jazz Hands. It's not just performance, but also teaching music and composing original music.
Our musicians have also gotten internships at studios. Whether it's a local studio or a Grammy Award winning studio, they have interned at these studios to learn the back end of creating and engineering music.
So like I said, our musicians have performed on several different stages, they've taught music to children who are enrolled in non-public schools, they have interned at Grammy Award winning studios, they've composed music that has been used in film, TV, advertising, and other digital content. There are many different ways to be employed in music. And we help our musicians learn different skills based on their interests for the segment of music that they wanna work in.
We’re also actively checking in on our musicians to see if they have developed any new interests as they go through our program. As they perform in different places or see different things, their interest may expand. They may come and say, “Hey, you know, I recently went to this museum, and it has to do with music history. I know a lot about music history, and I would love to work at a museum.” So our job is to go to that location and say, “Hey, we have a really talented and qualified individual that will make a great addition to your team. Can we set up an informational interview where you can learn who they are and see if they're a good fit for your company?” We're actively trying to help our musicians expand what they know they can do, and find opportunities in the community where they can actually put that into practice.
What are some of these social cues that might be super hard for someone on the spectrum to understand?
I have someone in my family that's neuro divergent. He has not been officially diagnosed with Autism, he's been diagnosed with ADHD, but he does suspect that he's on the spectrum. So he's gonna go in for that. And I was a big part of his life as he was growing up. One thing that would often happen is that while he was in school, he would think that kids were trying to be his friend and not notice that they were making fun of him, and so he was bullied in school. That's an example. Whereas for me, I may pick up really easily that they're trying to be condescending, being rude, or being mean.
That can be an issue, because we like to think that workplaces are just like these very objective places, and they're not. They're composed of people who have different ways of addressing different agendas, and there's power dynamics. And depending on how you “move” socially in that environment, it can affect your career. So if there's a social event happening and they're not able to pick up all the different cues, it can affect their mobility in that organization.
Another thing is that when it comes to getting promotions and things like that, it's not always based on merit. It's based on knowing how to rub shoulders with the right people, and for a person with autism, that may not be something they’re familiar with. That may also limit their possibilities at a workplace. Those are just some examples that kind of talk about the politics of a work environment, and how that plays into the social construction of that environment. These things can create a barrier for a person with autism.
On top of that, I've met quite a few individuals who are on the autism spectrum that are very blunt, actually. Things like sarcasm may not necessarily land well with a person with autism, generally speaking. A person with autism might say, “this thing is just not working well.” and it might offend somebody. Whereas somebody who doesn't have autism would say, “maybe let's try something different.” And this impacts their social capital in the work environment. There's a lot of different nuances, that people who are not on the spectrum may not consider to be something that they're actively doing, but for a person with autism it can become a barrier in the workplace.
What is the solution for this?
I can answer in a politically correct way or in the most honest way possible. I think I'm gonna choose the honest way. Research has proven that our society is very ableist. A lot of society's structures are not designed for people who do not operate in the “agreed upon”, mainstream way. And so, to be honest, if the world was to look the way that I think it should, some of these social standards would be dismantled.
Why do I have to deceive or not be straightforward to get somewhere? I don't think that that's fair, you know? I think some of those social standards that have become barriers for people with autism, are actually things that we need to dismantle anyway. Because they're not actually working for anybody, they're creating inequities. In my opinion, that's what we should be getting done. In a way that's more practical.
What we do is provide training in different social cues. Like, if you're gonna go to an interview, here are some things that you may not wanna say. Here's some things that you may wanna say, here are some ways that you may wanna approach it. Make sure you have some questions and do your research, so when they ask you “if you have any questions”, you're not tricked into saying, “oh, no, I don't have any questions.” Most people don't have questions at the end of an interview. They just research something and write it down so that they can impress whoever’s interviewing them. So, we do teach some of those skills. But like I said, if the world was to be the way that I think it should be, that shouldn't even be a problem, because I shouldn't have to pretend anything to get the job. I should be able to just be myself and get the job.
Why is music a valid career choice for people on the spectrum? Is it better suited than an office job?
I just wanna go back and say, if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. So there's no 'one size fits all'. There may be some people who have autism who just wanna sit at a desk and do data entry. That is their thing and they're passionate about that. And so for those individuals, an office job would be most suitable. But for those who wanna explore more creative aspects of who they are, a creative job would be best. To answer your question: music is a valid career choice for anyone interested in pursuing it.
Like I mentioned, at Jazz Hands we particularly work with musicians on the autism spectrum. Everyone we work with has already expressed an interest and has shown emerging talent in music. So, all we do at Jazz Hands is help them cultivate this talent and support them in sharing it with their communities, through volunteer or paid work opportunities. We don't infuse or force an interest in music. We leverage the existing interest. If somebody comes to us and says, “Hey, I have an interest in music.” We’re like, “Okay, great. We can support you.” But if somebody comes and says, “Hey, I'm interested in construction”, well, we may not be able to support you in the fullest way possible. We would send you to a program that is focused on that area.
Although music is a very powerful tool for social connection and mobility, a career in music is not for everyone. And so, the model that we're trying to put forth through Jazz Hands is to support an individual who has autism with job training and job scouting. You have to start with asking them what they're interested in and what they're motivated by. And then, from there, you can create pathways to help them break into that industry. It’s very person-centered. Getting to know the person, what their strengths and interests are is important to help them learn skills and find ways to mitigate some of their challenges.
What can you tell us about the link between music skills and autism?
Long story short, there are volumes of research that show that people with autism have an affinity or an inclination towards music, even more so than their typically developing peers. Knowing this makes music a really great tool for therapeutic intervention, social connection, and overall just creating a life of meaning for individuals who have autism, especially those who already have an existing interest in music.
In some individuals who have autism, loud noises can cause overstimulation and be very off putting. However, although music and sounds are connected, they're not exactly the same. Music is an organized sound. That's very important. It's organized and also a pattern sound. So many people who may have sensitivity to loud sounds may not necessarily be sensitive to loud music.
What inspired you to create this foundation and why is it important to you?
I mentioned earlier that I have a family member that is on the spectrum. So, just in general, Jazz Hands came to be because three things collided. One is my loved one who is neuro divergent. I've been providing support to that person for a majority of their life, and I've been an advocate for them in many different spheres. I also have a really deep love for music. For me, music is also a big way that I'm able to communicate and interact with people. And lastly, I met a really talented individual who has autism. And when I met him, he didn't even realize that he was leveraging the power of music to build community around himself.
After I met this person, it seemed like everything that I cared about kind of collided: me advocating for my loved one who is neuro divergent, my love for music, and then also meeting this talented individual who was using music to set an atmosphere. So, the next step I took was to create a platform where my love for music, social support and community inclusion came together for the benefit of neurodivergent individuals, especially those who have autism.
It first started with me meeting this individual and realizing all these things. And then me saying, “There's gotta be a place where neuro divergent people can express and leverage the power of music to connect with their environment and their community."
Jazz Hands for Autism is ever-evolving. And I think a big reason why we're ever-evolving is because we always start with the person and say, “What else do you want in this life? What do you wanna learn? How else do you wanna show up in this life? How can we support you in making that happen?”. One thing that we don't necessarily have is a very concrete or rigid strategic plan. And this is how it's always gonna be.
Our growth as an organization is very informed by the individuals that we support. They're the ones leading how the organization is growing and moving. I'm not on the autism spectrum. So as a leader of the organization, I need to ensure that I'm always listening to those we are supporting, otherwise we would recreate what we claim we're trying to solve.
One thing that Jazz Hands hopes to put out into the world is to listen to who you're supporting, and to always evolve based on what they need and not what you think they need. Jazz Hands only exists to support the individuals with autism. If we're not listening to them, then we're not accomplishing our mission.
I also wanna highlight our team. The strides that we've made with our organization, the mission, with how we're supporting our musicians, are all made as a team effort. Our team is absolutely incredible. I would venture to say, we have the best team ever. They really love their job. They really love our students. Our students love, love their instructors, and everybody just really comes together to push forward the mission, to support our musicians. That is what is most important: to focus on those we're supporting and have them be the ones that inform how the organization grows and evolves.
Are you a musician yourself?
Yes. I am a singer-songwriter, and I’m learning how to play the bass. I've also played the clarinet and a little bit of piano when I was younger. I still write music. I still sing. And I'm gonna be getting a saxophone soon. Music is a really big part of my life. I perform at open mics and things like that. The stage is a place where I feel very free.
And I want other people to feel that way too. Especially individuals who, because of the way society's built, may not have immediate access to tools that help them express themselves in that way, in that fullness of who they are. I think the stage is a very welcoming place to do that.
The thing is that in an ableist society, it's the same way with a racist society, or a sexist society. The victims of that “ism” always tend to internalize it and think something is wrong with them. But it's not like that, it's just that this society is not set up to make it easy for you to navigate it. Jazz Hands means to help our musicians realize there's nothing wrong with them. And that when you're given the proper support and proper tools, you can be everything that you've ever wanted to be.
How can music teachers, instructors or people that want to help get in touch with you if they want to be a part of this?
They can visit our website or just send us an email. We're trying to grow our network, because there are people with autism all over the world, all over the nation, and we don't want our work to just stop in Culver City, Los Angeles, California. We want to be able to help any person with autism with an interest in music anywhere in the world. And so, if people wanna learn how we're continuing to fine tune the way we support musicians who have autism, we'd love for them to contact us. And if they have any ideas or things that they've seen in their work, we'd love to hear that as well and see how we can collaborate.
But there are many different ways you can help. The first one is by donating. We need your support. Like I mentioned, we do a lot at Jazz Hands, and sadly that requires financing, it requires money. I wish it didn't, but it does. And so, we do need financial support. If you'd like to donate, you can do so right here.
Also, if you want to check out our music library, please do right here! There's a lot of great music. And once again, the songs are written and composed by individuals who are neuro divergent, especially those who are on the autism spectrum.
You can also follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. We are also on TikTok. We have some really cool content! And we're on YouTube too. We're not just supporting our musicians in an insular way, we realize that the world is becoming more digital. Our musicians are expanding their digital footprint as well. So you can find our musicians' performances on our Social Media.
You can listen to an extract of Ifunanya's interview on Spotify right here. And check out the rest of our Loog B-Sides Episodes right below!