Band of boys with autism uses music as a platform

Front from left are Paul Newton, who plays saxophone, and Mitch Newton, drummer. Back from left are Tyler Benson, on trumpet, and Edward Newton, who plays the electric bass. (Contributed Photo)
Front from left are Paul Newton, who plays saxophone, and Mitch Newton, drummer. Back from left are Tyler Benson, on trumpet, and Edward Newton, who plays the electric bass. (Contributed Photo)

When the doctors told the Newtons that their baby boy had severe autism, they were heartbroken.

"They said he had no potential, no hope," said Tawnia Newton, the child's mother.

But with one high-functioning autistic son, the family knew they could overcome baby Edward's diagnosis.

Five years later, Mitch was born, and the doctors again delivered a seemingly hopeless diagnosis: that this child's position on the spectrum was so severe that they should probably start searching for an institution to place him in.

After the birth of their fourth son, Paul, who was diagnosed with a more minor form of autism at an early age, living with autism became a way of life for the Newton family, which meant many sleepless nights for Mom and Dad. The kids were never all asleep at the same time, and the two older boys became master escape artists, running outdoors and climbing out of their windows to roam around outside, Newton said.

Then a miracle happened.

When the boys discovered their love for music, the entire world opened up for them, their parents said.

"They've just blossomed," said Newton.

Edward, now 25, can talk and read, and even has a part-time job at a thrift store down the road from the family's home in Hixson. Mitch, 20, just graduated from Hixson High School, two years sooner than anybody expected, and Paul, now 16, is on track to graduate high school next spring, a whole year ahead of schedule.

The two older boys live a semi-independent life, something their parents never thought possible when the kids were younger. Edward and Mitch live together in a small house, and are regularly visited by aides from the BlueCross Tennessee Employment and Community First CHOICES program, a service which provides assistance to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to help them gain as much independence as possible.

But one of the biggest accomplishments for the brothers was the formation of their band, the Crescent Club Quartet.

Mitch and Paul started taking music lessons when they were younger with James Mathis, a music instructor and former jazz major in college who had become the boys' primary aide through CHOICES. Mitch, who has perfect pitch and can tune any instrument by ear, learned to play the drums, guitar and piano. Paul, also a musical protege, can play the violin, guitar, piano, clarinet and saxophone. His ability to freestyle and improve on the saxophone is astounding, said his mother.

Mathis would give them individual lessons at their home and then have the boys play together for practice, something difficult for many autistic children to handle because of their difficulty with social interactions and communication.

After learning to cooperate and work together, the idea of a band was formed.

With Mathis as the director, Mitch on drums, and Paul on the sax, Edward picked up the bass guitar. The boys eventually recruited their friend Tyler Benson, who plays the trumpet and is also on the autism spectrum.

"I had no idea that they had such musical talent," Newton said.

The band practices at least twice a week, playing renditions of their favorite jazz songs, such as "Chameleon" by Herbie Hancock, along with their own original works.

The Crescent Club Quartet made its public debut at the Chattanooga Autism Center's awareness walk in November. Since then, the band has played at several autism events and parties.

"It's given them exposure to the real world," Newton said. "It taught them how to work with each other. They are learning to interact with the public, answer basic questions and give greetings. They are actually part of the community now."

A spectator at one of their shows said that when she learned all the members were on the spectrum, she expected something like a middle school band performance, but was shocked at the extreme capability and professional dexterity with which the boys played.

"They could compete with any band," Newton agreed.

The Crescent Club Quartet has played gigs for money, but that isn't their ultimate goal. While the boys have their sights set on playing professionally at local venues, they hope to use it as a platform to recruit more bandmates with mental disabilities, in order to share the healing power they've experienced.

"[Their music] has brought them happiness," the siblings' mother said. "They play just because they love it."

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