As an infant, she barely moved. Later she was prone to screaming, rolling-on-the-floor meltdowns.
But Breanna Bogucki responded well to musical toys. At age 3, the toddler was rapping Aaron Carter tunes.
Still, no one could have predicted Breanna, diagnosed with autism at 5, would ever sing in public, much less win a four-state competition.
Now 15 and a freshman at Cary-Grove High School, Breanna won the Special Talents America competition last month with her rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Mean” at North Central College in Naperville. The contest was open to youngsters with special needs from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin; nine finalists were picked for the show, out of 36 applicants.
“As a judge, I was looking for a few things. One was a great voice, if they are singers,” Peterik said. “Breanna immediately hit me like, ‘Oh my God, this girl has a fantastic voice.’ Not only that, her pitch is excellent.”
Breanna also was engaging onstage, and picked a song perfectly suited to her melodic pop-crossover voice, Peterik said. “You hear it all the time on ‘American Idol‘ — you’ve got to pick the right song,” he said.
Winning the contest was an amazing feeling, Breanna said. Music is incredibly important to her, almost essential, but it’s not easy for her to put into words why that is.
“I don’t think about it. I just like music. I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “I sing all the time; there’s probably not a day when I don’t sing.”
Her nerves used to be awful, but they’re better now.
“I would always just stand there and get so nervous,” said Breanna, who also sings songs by Kelly Clarkson and Carly Rae Jepsen. “(Special Talents America) was probably the loosest I’ve ever gotten. I moved around. I forced myself,” she said.
Breanna smiled and made eye contact throughout the song, which can be hard for someone with autism, said Jorie A. Meyer, program manager for Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. Meyer is co-creator and co-producer of Special Talents America.
“I sat in the front row for the show and was in awe of her performance; tears rolled down my cheek as she captivated the audience’s attention and got into the music and lyrics,” Meyer said. “I was so proud of her.”
Breanna’s prize is a recording session with Peterik, who will be writing a song especially for her. “I’m excited,” she says. “I’m pumped. I’ve never been in a recording studio.”
Breanna’s parents Dan Bogucki Jr. and his wife, Mary Ellen, have two other children, Kailey, 17, a senior at Cary-Grove, and Dan III, 23, who is studying computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Breanna’s first solo performance — a patriotic song in the third grade — was emotional for everyone who knew her challenges, Mary Ellen Bogucki said. “The teachers all started crying because she never talked to them, and here she gets up and sings in front of everyone,” she said.
When she was 9, she began taking voice lessons at Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association in Crystal Lake, where she also participated in the choir and theater programs.
“She has an amazing voice. It blows me away every time she sings. It’s very seamless; it seems like it’s effortless. She’s perfected it over the years,” said Emily Todd, manager of cultural arts and special events at NISRA.
Breanna also has a courageous voice, Todd said.
“Knowing the struggles that Breanna goes through on a daily basis in her social life … she breaks through. When she’s onstage and she’s singing, it doesn’t seem like she has a care in the world. Nothing can hold her back,” Todd said.
School, especially junior high, was difficult at times because classmates can be insensitive, said Breanna, who has high-functioning autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I feel like not a lot of people are nice sometimes,” she said.
Her sister Kailey said other kids just don’t get why that is.
“It’s one of two ways,” Kailey said. “People will either look at her and not know she has a disability, and think she just does things weird. Or they know she has a disability, so they’ll say, ‘Oh, she can’t do this.’ It just aggravates me.”
But winning the competition put her in a new light among classmates, Breanna said.
Many complimented her singing voice, and others added her as a friend on Facebook. She even got posts on her Facebook wall, which until then had only her mother’s posts.
“Then it looks like my mom just stalks me,” Breanna joked.
Peterik believes Breanna could make it as a professional singer. “I really do think Breanna has a chance in the business. She’s got great style, great pitch; she’s very cute in this vanity-slanted world,” he said.
As for her autism diagnosis, it could even work in her favor, Peterik said.
“People are going to be interested in hearing her. It’s going to be a testimony to what can be done, what these older and younger people can do, even with these challenges,” he said.
Breanna is still reluctant to sing for her family at home. After school, she goes into the bathroom alone with her iPod and sings for a couple of hours. She’s not sure she wants to become a professional singer, she said.
“First I have to get better,” she said.
She already knows what it’s like to have to power through a disappointing performance, after her voice cracked during an NISRA recital in May.
“I finished the song, then I had a meltdown. I cried, and I got over it,” she said.
Then she went onstage again and sang another song.
And with confidence, she said, “I nailed it.”