From rhythm to reason

Somewhere along the line, somewhere among the dotted quarter notes and pages of sheet music and the marching shoes and the endless hours of rehearsal and private lessons ... something clicked for young Gabriel Smith.

"I don't know what it is," his mom says, searching for reason within the rhythm.

It came the day her son sat down and learned 13 individual drum lessons in one sitting.

"I knew something was there that set the stage," she says.

For some, music provides escape from reality, where the focused becomes unfocused.

For Smith, a high school student dealing with autism, the pages filled with dots and lines provided a focus he relishes.

"Music has been very effective against my autism," Gabriel says. "It's something to (help with) depression as opposed to medicine, which only blocks it."

Kristin LaMoure, Gabriel's mother, says the change in her son in the past year leading up to his graduation is nothing short of a miracle.

"The problem with autism is, the range is huge," she says.

"No one treatment works. You're learning as you go, especially as a parent."

Kristin and her sons Spencer and Gabriel moved from Kent to Sequim in 2003, when Gabriel was 12. Although Gabriel, the youngest son, showed a high level of intelligence, his mother said he at times experienced many social, organizational and learning difficulties - not atypical of persons suffering from autism.

To put it plainly, autism is a complex developmental disability resulting from a neurological disorder. It often can cause substantial problems with social interaction and communication, making it hard for those with autism to communicate with others and relate to the outside world.

Autism is not a mental illness. It as yet has no cure.

A national study estimates as many as 12 in every 10,000 children have autism or a related condition and it is three times as common in boys than girls.

Put in a school setting, where youths are developing a sense of social hierarchy and their own place in the world, and an autistic world can be a lonely one.

"Gabriel became upset with himself whenever he made mistakes," LaMoure says.

"He found solace through various forms of expression, especially music. Because of the logical nature of music, Gabe could express his creativity, but (to also) learn this art in a progressive and structural way."

Already with a background in drumming and singing at his elementary school in Kent, Gabriel joined the Sequim music program in the middle school and eventually at the high school level.

Music director Vern Fosket noticed the young musician in eighth grade.

"He would come in with an aide; he would just kind of sit and listen - that's how he got started in the percussion class," Fosket said.

"At his previous school, he had learned quite a bit about note names. He had a pretty good knowledge of basics."

Instead of getting frustrated with mistakes - not an uncommon thing in the laboriously long hours it takes to rehearse any good band piece - Gabriel stuck with it, time and again.

"I just know that he seems to be able to focus," Fosket says.

"Other kids I've had with autism have seemed to be able to focus. (They aren't) quite as distracted."

Still, Gabriel remained frustrated for most of his high school years - and not with the music.

"The problem (is) being the only one who has to have an aide,' Gabriel says.

"People assume I need more help than everyone else. Everyone is different. Everyone needs help."

Gabriel started taking piano lessons from Sylvia Lepmanis and drum lessons from Rich Everheart in his junior year.

The young man started to learn to accept correction readily and understand the importance of practice, LaMoure says.

"Gabriel started to realize that mistakes are part of learning," she says.

"This began to translate into improvement in organizing and completing his work assignments."

And although he got that help each day from Lon Jackman, a para-educator with the school district, and from special education teacher Steve Brown, Gabriel made a number of advancements on his own during a particularly fruitful senior year.

During the 2008-2009 school year, Gabriel:

• Performed his first drum solo and two ensemble pieces at the regional solo and ensemble contest in Port Angeles, one of which qualified for the state solo and ensemble contest;

• Received a special award for "music dedication" from Disneyland at the Heritage Musical Festival;

• Auditioned for and performed in his first operetta, playing a character role with a solo in Sequim High School's production of "Beauty and the Beast";

• Presented his senior project and research paper about consumer debt;

• Received an award for "outstanding senior of the year" from language arts teacher Don Rice; and

• Earned his third letter for band.

Perhaps the most fitting event was late in the school year, when classmates and teachers raised funds for, bought and presented a letterman's jacket to Gabriel.

"Automatically he became part of the (band) group," Fosket says.

"I know sometimes autistic kids

are kind of in their own little world. That alone for him was one of the biggest things, (to) lock in and be a part of an ensemble. He's always had pretty good skills. They've improved over the years.

"The single most identifiable (improvement) was working with a group. The kids did a really good job watching out for him."

Now, with graduation a few weeks past, Gabriel has set new sights: life on his own.

That, his mother points out, is a big challenge that will come only in steps. First are lessons in paying his own bills, then some classes through Peninsula College, then other steps from his high school years to independent living.

If he had his way, Gabriel would be delving into music composition and some computer programming. But he also shows keen interest in organic foods and the effect nonorganic foods have on the human body.

Gabriel ruminates on his own unwritten future for a while, then pauses.

"I'm smart," he says, without any air of vanity.

"But I learn differently."

Reach Michael Dashiell at

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