Meeting Ethan Donn is a wonderful experience. His smile is radiant; his musical accomplishments are extraordinary. Ethan Donn is an 18 year old young man with mild autism. He is not very verbal and, therefore, cannot communicate his words very well, but his smile makes up for a lot. I met Ethan a few weeks ago at his home in White Plains, after he had returned home from his mariachi band rehearsal. The day before, on Father’s Day, Ethan performed to a packed house at CitiField for the Mets game against the St. Louis Cardinals, singing a moving “God Bless America.” Watching the video of Ethan singing can literally send shivers down your spine and then, seeing him leaving the field, waving to his adoring audience, is a sight to savor.
Ethan’s mom and dad, Jeff and Denise Donn, joined our meeting so that they could facilitate our conversation. Ethan is alert and easygoing, hanging on to everyone’s words, but it is difficult to communicate with him. Jeff explained that he and his wife, Denise, understood that Ethan’s diagnosis of mild autism would create many challenges. However, they soon realized that Ethan demonstrated extraordinary musical ability “from the time he walked around with the violin in his hand at age 3.” As a young child, Ethan enjoyed anything that had to do with singing songs or playing instruments. He loved the Baby Einstein video series, in particular, for its classical music.” Denise told me that at age 4, Ethan carried around a cello that was bigger than he was. Jeff and Denise were determined to encourage Ethan’s love of music and set out to bolster Ethan’s education in many different areas.
The Donn family lives in White Plains and are members of Young Israel of White Plains. Ethan attended the White Plains school system, graduating from White Plains High School (WPHS) in June. The Donns knew that the White Plains school system had a fine special education program, which they hoped would allow Ethan to obtain a solid education. However, they became frustrated with Ethan’s education during elementary school as he was not showing much progress and his teachers weren’t able to help him sufficiently. Fortunately, things changed when Ethan entered WPHS where the administration and the music department were extremely understanding and helpful.
After school hours were the time that Ethan began to learn. The Donns hired tutors for Ethan and realized the importance of providing excellent music teachers to encourage his innate musical talents. In addition to being tutored in secular subjects, he received speech therapy, had piano, violin and vocal teachers, all of whom were amazed at his musical abilities and perfect pitch. Participating in the Westchester Chabad Friendship Circle, Ethan was given the chance to make friends and to shine with his musical accomplishments. As Jeff said, “Ethan started performing for the Friendship Circle in front of 10 people. To see him perform for over 40,000 people (at CitiField) and see the joy he has when he performs is an amazing feeling.”
The Donns have demonstrated how music and autism can coexist. People with autism can often be encouraged to excel in other areas. In addition to his private lessons, the Donns seek out as many opportunities as possible for Ethan to participate in bands and choirs. It’s their way of making Ethan feel good about himself, as he does when he is immersed in something that he can easily understand. Jeff explained that “when Ethan sings or performs on his violin or piano, one can’t tell that Ethan has autism.”
Locally, Ethan sang the National Anthem for such teams as the Westchester Knicks, Iona College men’s and women’s basketball teams and the Rockland Boulders baseball team. Other performances include singing for St. Johns, Seton Hall and Rutgers College basketball games. He also sings for the Yeshiva University Maccabees basketball team.
This year was the first time that Ethan performed in the chorus at Carnegie Hall. He also has a credit on IMDB (which catalogues musicians, producers, albums, songs etc.), for a song he wrote for the movie “Victims,” currently playing on Amazon Prime. The “Victims” producer, who lives in Dutchess County, heard about Ethan and asked him to write a “sad song.” That’s exactly what Ethan did.
In a few weeks, Ethan will be joining the Yachad Yad b’Yad program, leaving home for the first time, traveling on an extended trip to Israel. The program begins with a gala Shabbaton in West Orange, New Jersey, allowing the kids and counselors to get to know each other before their highly anticipated trip begins. Denise told us that she’s a “bit concerned” about Ethan leaving home and traveling so far away, but she knows he’ll be fine. Denise explained, “It’s a feeling of accomplishment to see that the work we put in is paying off. We’re very proud of how Ethan handles things.”
Ethan will be in White Plains High School next year, where he can remain until he’s 21. He’ll be engaged in a work program at the Mamaroneck Avenue School in the mornings in the music department, heading back to WPHS in the afternoons where he will continue with music and core classes.
Denise shared that it was extremely difficult finding music teachers who knew how to deal with individuals with special needs. However, “Parents have that instinct that tells them what their child needs. They know their children better than any doctor, specialist or teacher. I want to tell parents to follow their instincts.” Clearly, Jeff and Denise persevered in seeking out those areas in which Ethan could shine. Their “ultimate goal” for Ethan is an area where he can create, perform and generate music and have a productive job. Their continued support for Ethan and pride in his accomplishments are clear.
When Ethan decided our interview was enough, he headed to the piano and began playing the sweetest, most beautiful music. It was time to say good-bye.
By Yvette Finkelstein