By Darold Treffert, MD
James lives in British Columbia. He is 21 years old now and plays the piano brilliantly, as well as the accordion and harmonica. He composes his own songs, although he has never had music lesson in his life. He belongs to Socan, which is a Society of composers, authors and music publishers of Canada. He carries a diagnosis of high functioning Asperger’s Disorder. Who better to give the background on James than his own mother in her own words:
“When James was only 2 years old he would listen to songs on television and then hum the words back. He started becoming interested in playing piano when he was 4 years old. My husband Stan and I bought him a small toy piano for Christmas. After that he would listen to music on the radio or television, and play it back. He found the piano playing to be very therapeutic.
“When James turned 13 he told us the piano didn’t have enough keys. He wanted 88 keys like a real pianos had. Since we couldn’t afford such a piano at that time I decided to write a letter to ‘Let’s Make a Wish’ television show for people who were very gifted musically but couldn’t afford a piano. I recruited three professional people that knew James to write a letter on how gifted a savant he was and how a piano would really improve his quality of life. About a week before Christmas James was watching the ‘Let’s Make a Wish’ program and they read my letter and mentioned that James would receive a beautiful Clarinova Piano for Christmas. Our whole family, including James, had tears of joy coming from our eyes. James shouted out ‘Mom, you got me the piano!’
“Ever since that time James has been playing his piano diligently and now is composing his own songs. He puts those songs on a disk and he has over 300 such songs that he has composed. He loves Yanni. He listens to Yanni’s piano music and plays it back in tune with every note just as Yanni plays it, as well as other piano songs he hears.
“James sits for hours each day playing different songs on his 88-key piano that he will never forget his Mom got him that one very special Christmas Eve. James says he would like to be like Glenn Gould, a famous Canadian piano player. But to me, James is already famous. James is on some medication related to his Asperger’s Disorder and sometimes that seems to interfere with his playing, much to his frustration.
“James rocks his head back and forth to music, even when singing in church. He was just born with this musical talent. He’s like God’s angel that came to earth to bring joy to people with his musical talent. He can also play the harmonica, accordion and organ. Before he got his piano he did play the organ but wasn’t happy with that because it did not have all the keys a real piano has.
“James has made me, as his mother, have a total new outlook on life-that nothing is impossible, even reaching the stars! James, in my mind, is a star. Because of him I have done things regarding advocacy for many Canadian children and adults so that they can receive Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) treatment and other appropriate therapies. I feel good about what I have accomplished. Being a United States Marine has helped mold me into a fighter, where nothing is impossible, to take on the task of providing James, and other persons with autism and Asperger’s, better treatment opportunities with the goal of providing a better life overall. I have a deep respect for children and adults with disabilities, and their families, and that propels me along in this vital mission.”
When Kim Peek and Fran Peek came to address an Autism Conference in Canada in 2002, James had a chance to meet Kim and they have been friends since that time, corresponding regularly. Also, Fran and Kim have become involved in the mother’s advocacy efforts and Fran has written several letters of support that Mom has been able to share with officials and others interested in helping to provide more treatment resources in the province.
An article in a British Columbia newspaper in January, 2003 gives some additional background on both James and the advocacy effort. It also reveals that a documentary about James is underway through combined efforts of a Canadian and U.S. film company. James plans to combine his music performance ability with electronic engineering which is a sizeable part of the musical scene everywhere these days.
Update: January 22, 2010
James recently wrote a song to commemorate the passing of Kim Peek. The video can be accessed here.
Back to Savant Profiles
For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com