Chico Enterprise-Record (Chico, CA)

January 24, 2006
Section: Local
Article ID: 3434647

Music gives autistic kids social rewards

CHRIS GULLICK - Staff Writer

Emma Blankenship, Sawyer and Evan Goodson, and Guy Melms, students from three different schools, practice rock music in the Goodsons' garage. But they aren't your typical garage band. On a recent afternoon, the band — a couple members wearing black T-shirts printed with the band's name, Jet Fuel Only — gathered in the garage, along with instructor Brett Johnson, several parents and a few friends. They worked through a set of instrumental classic rock songs and some original pieces.

Guy, 11, a sixth-grader from Bidwell Junior High School, played keyboard; Emma, 11, a sixth-grade student at Hooker Oak School, played a bass guitar; Sawyer, 12, a sixth-grader at Citrus School, kept rhythm on drums; and Evan, 10, a fifth-grader at Citrus, played lead guitar.

The band was the idea of Evan and Sawyer's dad, Daniel Goodson, as a way to involve Sawyer in socially-acceptable activity and, according to Goodson, the benefits were more notable and larger than he expected.

Sawyer has a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning autism with profound social issues. The band has provided an opportunity for social interaction — not only for Sawyer, but for his 6-year-old brother Cameron, who has the more recognizable non-verbal form of autism.

Goodson related how he brought a guitar home from his mother's home in New Hampshire, planning to make learning the guitar a father-son activity.

He was also reading journal articles about autism, trying to find ways to help his two autistic sons, and one particular line of research intrigued him — research on how music is good for the brain.

Goodson's job as a pilot kept him away from home during the week and he hoped to keep a connection with his sons while he was away, by establishing a mutual learning program.

He'd check into his hotel at night, call home and compare practice sessions. Within a couple months, he said, Evan had passed him up.

But Sawyer's condition includes sensory sensitivities that made playing the guitar painful, so he switched to learning the drums and, with only a few formal lessons, he excelled at it.

The boys played their music for a student assembly at Jay Partridge School last spring and the result was harmonious. The music seemed to compose a social passage for Sawyer.

Students asked the boys for autographs and Emma asked if she could join the band. Fellow students suddenly thought the boys were cool.

Goodson explained how Sawyer's autism had set him apart, socially, from other students and he was often ridiculed.

Goodson's voice roughened as he began to relate how Sawyer used to be bullied and teased at school.

"There is nothing more painful than seeing your child shunned on the playground and in the classroom," he explained.

Then he excused himself suddenly. In a few minutes, he returned, apologized for losing control and continued his story.

"The kids were hard on him," he concluded. But playing in the band had positive repercussions.

Goodson explained that Sawyer learns from experiences, memorizing events because he has difficulty making sense of new social situations.

One thing playing music in a group has done, Goodson said, is give him a rich set of experiences to learn from.

For example, he's had to learn non-verbal cues, such as a signal to end a song in unison with other musicians.

"His memory is incredible," Goodson added. "He remembers everything."

So he has been able to memorize positive ways to interact with others.

Sawyer has also learned that practice, repetition and hard work have tangible social rewards, as students who used to avoid him are now reaching out to him.

Sawyer has developed a self-congratulatory pride, according to Goodson. When he has difficulties at school, he reminds himself, "I'm a drummer in a rock band."

And the positive self-image, in return, has helped him become less stressed with other people.

The boys' mother, Julie, agreed, saying she's seen changes in Sawyer, and in their youngest son, Cameron, too.

Cameron has been involved in the weekly practice sessions, strumming along on a bass ukulele, moving gently in time to the music, or mimicking hand motions. That amount of engagement with the outside world is huge for someone with his form and degree of autism, Goodson explained.

The band's name comes from a batch of stickers Goodson brought home from his current job as a pilot for Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. The stickers are typically applied to an airplane's wing, near the fuel tank.

Evan and Sawyer applied the stickers to their musical instruments, and applied the name to their fledgling band, hoping it would take off.

As far as Daniel and Julie Goodson are concerned, the band has already taken off, by landing them ways to help their autistic sons.

Staff writer Chris Gullick can be reached at 896-7760 or