Review - Some Kind of Genius The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois by Janice DeBlois and Antonia Felix Rodale Books, 2005 Review by Kevin Purday May 22nd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 21)
This bookis about an astonishing man who was born prematurely weighing in at only just over one and a half pounds. Because of his poorly developed lungs he was given large amounts of pure oxygen. Later it was discovered that too much pure oxygen can cause blindness as it sadly did in Tony's case. However, as he grew up it slowly became apparent that this was far from his only disability. His development as a child lagged considerably behind the normal pattern -- often by as much as six to ten months. The only plus was his constant interest in sound and rhythm whether it came from the washing machine or the radio.
When he was two and finding it difficult to sit up unaided, his mother made a serendipitous discovery -- at a local garage sale she found and bought him a Magnus chord organ. Having taken off its short legs she placed it in front of him and, hey presto, the magic began to work. He took to it like the proverbial duck to water. Other instruments rapidly followed starting with a harmonica that he could easily carry around with him.
Due to his mother's almost constant self-education she soon came to realize that Tony was autistic although it was some years before the medical profession made a formal diagnosis to that effect. In fact, while this book is nominally about Tony DeBlois it is also in many ways the story of the remarkable woman who is his mother. She comes over as an autodidact but one who will use any book or course which will improve her knowledge of the world, someone who is a true lifelong learner and someone who has got grit and tenacity. As the extent of Tony's disabilities became clear she had to fight numerous battles with all sorts of state and private agencies over rights to transport, access to courses, funding, etc.. Because she always got her facts straight, learned her legal rights and refused to be fobbed off, she invariably won.
Tony was always supported not only by his mother but by a host of other wonderful people many of whom were musicians who recognized his ability. This ability of his was so phenomenal that he was seen by the man who is probably the leading expert on autism and savant syndrome. Not only did he diagnose Tony as an autistic savant but he realized that Tony is one of the world's few prodigious savants -- a musical savant in the tradition of Mozart.
Tony's prodigious talent was nourished by several outstanding musicians and musical establishments, most notably the Berklee College of Music, and it soon became apparent that jazz, especially jazz improvisation, was his forte. It is wonderful to read about how as his musical skills increased so did his social skills.
The book is a tale of enormous hardships overcome. Tony's brother Ralph was also diagnosed as having autism albeit the mild form -- Asperger's syndrome -- and also Klinefelter's syndrome so their mother had to attend to the special needs of two children. She emerges from this book as an inspirational parent and Tony's rise to the pinnacle of the jazz world is a testament to his mother's dedication.
This is an inspirational book and deserves to be read by anyone interested in autism and/or savant syndrome. It is a truly moving story.
Kevin Purday is a consultant in international education working mainly in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. His main focus is on helping schools to set up the International Baccalaureate Middle Years and Diploma Programs. He has taught both philosophy and psychology in the I.B. diploma program.
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