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Jazz Hands For Autism is creating new avenues for autistic musicians

Updated February 8, 2023 at 6:08 AM ET

For many people, music can be their first language. It allows people to celebrate their creative expressions and talents.

Jazz Hands for Autism is a Southern California-based nonprofit that provides music training, vocational development and job placement support for musicians with autism.

Ifunanya Nweke, the 32-year-old founder of Jazz Hands for Autism, told NPR that inspiration came almost a decade ago when she met Ruben, a young musician on the autism spectrum.

When she was 21, she volunteered for a day program at UCLA where she met Ruben Jussen.

She was immediately struck when she saw him playing and singing the piano. He had heard the song for the first time three days earlier and had already transposed it.

"I saw Ruben, a leader. I saw Ruben, a communicator. He was just being himself. And in being himself, he was shifting the entire dynamic of his classroom," she shared.

Jazz Hands for Autism began for Nweke at that moment. It's now primarily funded by the Regional Center in California. They also receive grants, individual donors and corporate partnerships in the hope of further expanding their programs and serving more musicians in California and beyond.

Nweke says "people with autism have a voice. And they have something to say. And I think it's time for us to shift the industry towards a direction to receive and listen to those voices."

Over the past decade, Jazz Hands for Autism has since worked with dozens of musicians.

Christian Culmer Evans joined Jazz Hands for Autism three years ago and performed at the concerts they held. He sings and plays the bass, guitar, piano and drums.

Before Jazz Hands Evans said he never saw himself in the music industry.

"Jazz Hands basically helped prove to myself that anyone can fit in and anyone can just be themselves in this world if they want to."

Jazz Hands for Autism will hold its next concert in May in Culver City and will be sponsored by the Cultural Affairs Commission of Culver City.

The radio version of this story was edited by Claudia Peschiutta. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Iman Maani
Iman Maani is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. She began her journalism career at Member station NCPR in Canton, New York. She has also worked on the political docu-series, Power Trip, that covered the midterm elections. Iman is a graduate from St. Lawrence University.