Drums a hit with autistic Washington boy

January 2, 2013 11:31 a.m. - Updated: 12:09 p.m.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Ask Ian Engelsman his musical inspirations, and he’ll give you an earful.

Dokken, Slaughter, Skid Row and Twisted Sister. White Lion, W.A.S.P., Judas Priest and, his mother’s favorite, Pink Floyd. He doesn’t care much for The Who. And, did you know, nearly all of the songs on The Outfield’s album featuring their hit, “Your Love,” are only about 3 minutes long?

Ask Ian about his bright blue Ludwig drum set, and he’ll explain the different types of drums. Snare. Bass. Toms.

That instrument on a stand next to him? That’s a cowbell. And the copper-spun cymbals, those are noisy percussion instruments, Ian points out.

“Playing the drums is kind of like my thing,” Ian says simply.

Five years ago, Ian didn’t speak - not even about drums. He didn’t look people in the eye. And he surely didn’t twirl drumsticks between his fingers after freestyling for visitors.

Ian is autistic, and but not for the drums, his parents say, he would still be exhibiting the behavior that made him an isolated, muted child.

“The drums, they’re like our lifeline,” said Claudia Engelsman, Ian’s mother.

Looking back, the drums have always been Ian’s “thing,” his parents said.

At age 4 - not long after receiving the autism diagnosis - Ian was like many children his age, banging on pots and pans he pulled out of kitchen cupboards, said his dad, David Engelsman.

But about three years ago, Ian started playing with other items he found in the kitchen. He retrieved empty jars and bottles, turned coffee cans upside down and wrapped paper plates in tinfoil.

Then, he played music.

“He had rhythm,” said Claudia, who studied music and played the guitar.

She bought Ian a set of cheap toy drums from the drugstore. Ian fastened his makeshift instruments to the set and kept playing.

“I told David, ’There is something here,’” Claudia said.

That Christmas, Santa brought 9-year-old Ian his first real drum set. After that, Claudia started looking for music classes for Ian. But as soon as she mentioned her son’s autism, doors shut, she said.

“It’s the leprosy of the 21st century,” she said.

But then Claudia found Musical Beginnings in Orchards, not far from their Vancouver home. They welcomed Ian — and his autism.

After 10 minutes of playing, Ian’s teacher was pulling other teachers in to hear the 9-year-old beat on the drums.

“They said, ’He’s a natural,’” Claudia said.

From there, Ian began to flourish.

Ian’s coordination improved. He was no longer bumping into things. He could color inside the lines.

He began talking without being prompted. He became focused. He gained self confidence.

The music classes - coupled with a school program Claudia fought hard for, one tailored to Ian’s needs - resulted in more success.

Ian stopped running from his parents. His violent episodes dissipated. His IQ jumped from 76 to 130. He earned awards, musical and academic. And two years ago, Ian learned he no longer needed occupational and physical therapy.

The drums are his therapy.

“He said, ’Don’t ever take away the drums,’” Claudia said of Ian’s psychologist.

Ian’s success hasn’t been limited to his behavior.

Since picking up his first set of drumsticks, Ian’s playing has drawn the attention of others.

Just a few months after he began drum lessons, Ian decided to participate in his school’s talent show. He took first place.

After the talent show, the Silver Star Elementary School band teacher asked Ian to join the band.

“It was so rewarding,” Claudia said.

Since then, the offers have continued for Ian. He was given a solo act in his first recital. Middle school band teachers ushered him into their classes. And he’ll play drums with a band in the upcoming Portland Rose Festival.

The praise and recognition have helped to balance the countless times Ian was told “no,” the times he was ostracized, criticized and judged, Claudia said.

Now people are taking notice of Ian, not for his disability but his ability.

“You have no idea how many times he’s been rejected,” Claudia said. “But now, the drums have opened, maybe not other doors, but doors that offer opportunities.”


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