Campus event educates on autism spectrum disorder, music

Ricky Hasney | Staff Photographer Posters for Divergent Musicalities appeared on campus, outlining the schedule.
Ricky Hasney | Staff Photographer
Posters for Divergent Musicalities appeared on campus, outlining the schedule.

Capri Scarcelli | Staff Writer


Autism spectrum disorder affects 1 in every 59 children.

Music, however, affects everyone.

This Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14 in PNC Recital Hall, Duquesne University professors Elizabeth Fein and Paul Miller have co-organized an event called “Divergent Musicalities: Teaching, Learning, Sharing, and Making Music Across the Autism Spectrum,” which illuminates how important a musical environment is for everyone, no matter our differences.

The speakers feature local professors and performers as well as professionals throughout the continent, including ethnomusicologist Michael Bakan, who studies the culture of music around the world; singer, businessman and charity-worker John Vento; viola d’amore player Thomas Georgi; psychologist Tammy Hughes; music therapist Linda Sanders; pianist Jackson Hunt; singing duo Joe Hnath and Patrick Lah and DJ Justin Cappozzoli.

According to Fein, the afternoon itinerary will be “more conversation-based,” as there will be speakers and a question and answer session from 12 to 3 p.m, with a pizza party at 4 p.m. The next day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., there will be a group discussion with the consultants;  3 to 4:30 p.m. features a “group jam session” by the various participants above, some of which are on the autism spectrum themselves. From 5 to 7 p.m., a presentation is made available to the public.

Miller said the purpose of this event is to “open people’s minds, especially our students, to knowing how to recognize signs, understanding how to communicate to people who are on the spectrum and how to bring out the very best qualities to all the people they encounter in their careers.”

Fein said that she and Miller were hoping to address the importance of inclusiveness in our area.

“What we are doing is bringing together people from the greater Pittsburgh community, music teachers, music educators, researchers, musicians and people in all of those categories who are on the autism spectrum themselves,” she said. “People who are on the spectrum, people who are not on the spectrum, people who are neurodivergent in other ways … we want to bring people together — we want to make music together and to talk and learn about how we can make [that happen].”

Fein, an assistant professor in Duquesne’s psychology department, specializes in neurodevelopmental disorders, cultural psychology and clinical ethnology. Currently, Fein is focusing her research on autism spectrum disorder as well as creative subcultures, which inspired this event to come to fruition.

“When I started working with autism and thinking about what are powerful, meaningful social experiences for people on the autism spectrum, I was thinking a lot about music … music as something that is collaborative has always been an important part of my life, growing up in a musical family …  [it] can create really powerful experiences of connections between people and with my research on autism, that is my primary focus.”

Vento, one of the guest speakers at the event, is a co-founder of Band Together Pittsburgh (BTP) a foundation that provides a creative outlet to those on the autism spectrum. This organization features musical programs that help individuals on the spectrum get acclimated to and become more comfortable in social settings, forming friendships and connecting families along the way. Such events include open-mic nights, professional DJ music, “autism friendly” drum circles and the “Blues and Roots Festival,’’ according to Vento.

The music that is performed by BTP is “all over the spectrum for those on the spectrum,” ranging from rock, big band, pop, Disney and so on.

“Music is a huge part of my life, firsthand I know the power of music for the soul and spirit… it has a healing nature to it,” Vento said. “To see it manifested through our events and the impact it has for those on the spectrum shows how music affects folks in such wonderful ways.”

Vento also gigs as frontman of Pittsburgh rock and roll group Nied’s Hotel Band; he has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for charities such as the Autism Society of Westmoreland County. His godson, Justin Morante, has autism, which is part of the reason he started doing charitable work for the Pittsburgh community.

“There are so many wonderful organizations that advocate for those on the spectrum… [Divergent Musicalities] is really well-organized,” he said.

According to Fein, she and Miller have collaborated on this event starting June of last year, and have been working diligently on it since. Vento said he met Fein because she came to one of the open-mic nights, inviting his performers to be a part of her event.

Fein and Miller agreed that this event would not only be beneficial to future music educators/musicians, but to anyone working in a field that would require more inclusivity.

“I’ve learned so much already from the participants in this event,” Fein said. “[I’ve learned] about how they do music, about what inspires them, about what has been difficult for them and how they have dealt with those challenges.”

Miller said Divergent Musicalities “fits well into the mission of Duquesne University.”

“I think for the folks who are on the spectrum and for those who are attending … it helps them to connect to us, too,” Miller said. “Maybe it helps us to understand that in some ways we are not so far apart … we can make music together just fine and that really humanizes everybody, so I think that this really is quite a beneficial thing.”

“Expect tons of surprises; you don’t realize how talented and beautiful [people on the autism spectrum] are as people and as performers. We don’t realize how much they make our world better.” Vento said.

Students can still register on the Duquesne website under Liberal Arts news and events.

Tickets are free to students and faculty, and $15 for the general public.

 Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Fein has told The Duke that, as of press time, a decision has not been made as to whether Divergent Musicalities will be canceled due to the university’s coronavirus precautions. Fein encourages those interested to visit for updates on this matter.