Autistic savant shares his genius
From: The Age (Australia)
Olga Craig, London
September 19, 2006
The instant Derek Paravicini heard the sound of the music, he broke free from his parents' grasp and headed towards it. The little girl on the piano stool took a tumble as the then four-year-old boy, blind, autistic and severely learning impaired, pushed her out of the way and began playing in her place.
"It was utterly extraordinary," says Adam Ockleford. "He was hitting the notes with his hands, his feet, his nose, even his elbows. It was clear he had never had a lesson, yet he produced this wonderful version of Don't Cry For Me Argentina."
Mr Ockleford, a music psychologist and then head of music at Linden Lodge School for the blind and intellectually impaired, realised at once that the child frantically bashing keys was a prodigy. Today, at 27,
Paravicini is acknowledged as one of only 23 autistic savants in the world[/b]. He is one of those rare people with severe learning difficulties, who is a genius in one particular area.
He can neither count to 10 nor tell left from right. He needs round-the-clock supervision: without carers he could not dress or feed himself.
Paravicini has the extremely rare gift of universal, absolute pitch and remembers every piece of music he has ever heard — not only the melody, but what each instrument is playing[/b], just as Mozart could.
Paravicini's precision is greater than professional musicians'[/b], despite his inability to communicate clearly with language.
After listening to a melody once, he can play it without error[/b].
His international audience is immense — a few months ago he played to several thousand people in Las Vegas, and
in the next few months will play in Hollywood and Connecticut[/b]. His first CD, Echoes Of The Sounds To Be, a jazz compilation, will go on sale on Amazon next month.
Paravicini lives at the Royal National Institute of the Blind College in Surrey, where he spends much of each day at the piano. But if his first love is music, his second is meeting people. He can conduct simple conversations but, in common with many who have autism, he reverts to echolalia, repeating what has just been said to him, when he cannot comprehend the comment.
Suddenly, he announces: "I'll play now."
Mr Ockleford guides him to the piano and Paravicini flexes his fingers. As they ripple across the keys, the haunting Mozart Sonata in A fills the room. Engrossed, Paravicini and his piano have become one. He slips effortlessly into Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee. Just as swiftly, as he began, he stops.
That Derek survived at all is remarkable. Born prematurely at only 25 weeks, he "died" three times. Before long, his severe disabilities, caused by an overdose of oxygen, became apparent. "We noticed straight away that he couldn't distinguish between light and dark," says his mother, Mary Anne. "No one played any instruments at home; the only reason we gave him a plastic, toy organ, when he was around 18 months, was because we were desperately trying to find things to stimulate and engage his interest."
Mr Ockleford began teaching Paravicini when he was four. It took eight years to straighten out the boy's technique. His classical playing is superb, but he cannot resist improvising — an approach much better suited to jazz.
For Paravicini's parents and Mr Ockleford, now the director of education at the institute, it has always been difficult deciding how often to sanction his public appearances.
"It's true that he cannot, himself, give informed consent," Mr Ockleford says. "Ultimately we can only take decisions on his behalf and hope they are in his best interests. There is no doubt that he is, truly, one of the world's greatest savants."