Autistic savant pianist Matt Savage headlines Autism Awareness Month

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Pianist Matt Savage is barely out of his teens, yet the autistic savant has already played with jazz greats like Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea and Jimmy Heath – an unlikely scenario when you consider that as a child he was unable to tolerate noise, much less appreciate music.

Savage will perform at Mercyhurst College’s Walker Recital Hall at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, as part of the college’s observance of Autism Awareness Month. The Asperger Initiative at Mercyhurst (AIM), a pioneering program for college students with high-functioning autism, is sponsoring this event and more during April, including two speaking engagements by Dr. Gena Barnhill, a distinguished psychologist and author of multiple publications on autism and Asperger Syndrome (April 14-15); and the Sundance Film winner, “Mary and Max” (April 6).

“The increase in the number of individuals identified with autism is described by some researchers as an ‘epidemic’ and Mercyhurst College has assumed a leadership role in providing academic, social and emotional support for college students with autism,” said Dianne Rogers, director of the Learning Differences Program at Mercyhurst. “Our efforts have been rewarded with a federal grant, which has permitted us to extend an invitation to Matt Savage and to share his genius with the Erie community.”

At age 3, Savage was diagnosed with a form of autism called Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Through early intervention therapies and a strict dietary regime, he was able to overcome his initial aversion to sound and replace it with an extraordinary attenuation toward music. By age 6, Savage was teaching himself to read music and play piano. At 7, he began studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, and released his first solo album at age 8.

It wasn’t long before Savage, now 18, found himself the subject of television and radio stories, including an interview with Barbara Walters for ABC's "20/20," an appearance on "The Today Show" and a feature story on NPR's "All Things Considered." His incredible journey was also featured in a documentary called "Beautiful Minds — A Voyage into the Brain."

His list of accomplishments includes being the youngest person to be signed as a Bosendorfer piano artist and the youngest performer to have played at New York's legendary jazz club, Blue Note. He has released several albums, both as a solo performer and as part of the Matt Savage Trio, with whom he’ll perform at Mercyhurst. Tickets for the performance are $10 apiece. Call 824-3000 for ticket information.

Mercyhurst will also welcome Dr. Gena Barnhill for two speaking engagements. Currently on the faculty at Lynchburg College, she has been in the disability services field for more than 25 years and is the author of two books on Asperger Syndrome: “Right Address, Wrong Planet: Children with Asperger Syndrome Becoming Adults” and “Parents of Children with Disabilities: A Survival Guide for Fathers and Mothers.”

Her program on Thursday, April 14, from 7 to 9 p.m. will provide “Navigation Tips for Teens and Young Adults with ASD.” It will be held at Mercyhurst’s Walker Recital Hall. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, April 15, Barnhill will consult with parents, agency members, and area special education administrators on methods and approaches to best serve the needs of students on the autism spectrum at Mercyhurst’s Taylor Little Theatre. (Lunch is the responsibility of the attendees, although the college’s cafeteria will be open to those who elect not to leave campus.) Both events are free and open to the public. Call Dianne Rogers, 824-2450, for more information.

The Gulecher Film Series will offer “Mary and Max” on the big screen at the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center Wednesday, April 6, with showings at 2:15 and 7:15 p.m. The film tells of a pen-pal relationship between two very different people: Mary Dinkle, a chubby, lonely 8-year-old living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia; and Max Horovitz, a severely obese, 44-year-old Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in the chaos of New York City. Sponsorship of this film is through a Congressionally-directed grant to AIM.

Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, $4 for President’s Cardholders and free for Mercyhurst College students. Tickets can be purchased by calling 824-3000.
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