Teen with Asperger’s finds home as radio host
JACLYN YOUHANA, The Journal Gazette
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Every Thursday night, after Northeast Indiana Public Radio has shut down for the day, after the lights are out and the employees have gone home, after the hustle has calmed and the bustle has quieted, Joshua Stephenson arrives.
Joshua is a volunteer host at the radio station, and he records his classical music show – “Josh’s Corner,” which airs at 6 p.m. Saturdays – with his mother, Annette. He is 16 years old, and he started to listen to classical music when he was 6. As a child, large rooms with a lot of noise affected him more than other people. Loud sounds and crowds would cause Joshua to hold his ears, as if he were in pain, says his father, Scott Stephenson.
Sound sensitivity is a common symptom of autism, and Joshua, of Convoy, Ohio, has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism that affects his ability to communicate and interact socially. To treat this sensitivity, Joshua’s parents turned to audio therapy: Using Bose headphones that emphasized the high and low pitches in song, Joshua started to build a tolerance to loud noises through classical music.
Simultaneously, he started to build a love for that music.
Joshua has hosted his hour-long radio program for about six months, and originally, he didn’t want to do it. He was in the car with his mother, Annette says, and she heard that WBOI-FM 89.1 was looking for volunteers to host music shows.
“You could do that,” she said to her son, and as she started to write down the phone number, Joshua turned off the radio.
Despite her son’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction, Annette persisted. When they got home, she looked up the station’s number, called and told them her situation: that her son was 15, he loved classical music and he had Asperger’s.
They wanted to meet him.
“Annette about fell over,” Scott says.
When asked whether he chooses the music for each show, Joshua is very matter of fact: “Of course I do.” But he has trouble expanding further than that. When asked whether he has a favorite composer, he responds the same – “Of course I do” – but when pressed, he is unable to share who that composer is without a little help from Annette; it’s Bach.
Although Joshua does speak during his shows, he does not chat as much as other radio hosts will, Indiana Public Radio general manger Will Murphy says. His show might not include details about instruments or composers, instead opting to feature primarily the music.
On a recent “Josh’s Corner,” Joshua featured all songs from cartoon classics, including Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s “The Sleeping Beauty Waltz (Once Upon a Dream),” performed by the Boston Pops; Amilcare Ponchielli‘s “Dance of the Hours” from “Fantasia” (or “the part with the dancing ostriches and hippos”), performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra; and Gioachino Rossini‘s “Largo Al Factotum” from “The Barber of Seville” (or from Bugs Bunny, where you might recognize it as “The Figaro Song”) performed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Joshua is a slim boy with brown hair and an enormous smile. He will shake hands when he meets a new person and then quickly find a seat and become absorbed in his drawing. He politely answers questions directed at him, but he seems much more interested in the “Peanuts” characters he sketches from memory, Marcie and Peppermint Patty. The style of drawing is crude, but Joshua’s understanding of proportion – and his basic ability to memorize just about every detail – is evident in every stripe, finger and upturned nose.
It was evident that Joshua had a spectacular memory from as early as preschool, Scott says. He tells a story of Joshua’s class singing a song that incorporated every student’s first and last name, about 20 to 25 kids. The next day, Joshua sang it back with ease.
His mother says that when Joshua enjoys something, such as a TV program – say, “The Lawrence Welk Show” – he will watch it again and again, until he’s memorized it.
Then, he’ll turn it to Spanish or French and watch it again and again.
Joshua struggles with math, but he loves to read, and he loves language. He says he speaks Spanish and is learning French. Once, he turned Annette’s GPS to Portuguese, and she had to ask him to translate the directions.
Joshua is an only child, and his parents wonder what will happen as he reaches adulthood. They wonder what kind of career he might embark upon.
“Do you have to be social to be a translator?” Scott wonders.
Given his love for classical music, Murphy says, Joshua just might have a career in radio.
“Anytime you have somebody who really loves something and can convey that affection on the radio, I think there’s potential there,” he says.
A former program director at the station is the one who first agreed to let Joshua host a show, Murphy says, and the reasoning goes back to the station’s mission statement: To engage the community with content that enriches the human spirit.
“If Josh’s show doesn’t do that,” Murphy says, “I don’t know what does.”