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16 September 2019

Playing in the Band

By Berton Woodward

Chris Molyneaux likes to say that music is his first language – he learned to communicate with it before he learned to speak. It wasn’t until he was five years-old that he was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and began to get proper speech therapy at Pathways Health Centre for Children in Sarnia. But well before that, he was able to get across his needs in a wordless singsong. “Even before I could speak English, I was using music to express my feelings,” he says.

Today, at 25, Chris is an accomplished saxophonist with his own group – the Chris Molyneaux Jazz Trio – and a CD titled Closer to Home available for streaming on sites such as Spotify and iTunes. He also speaks so well that he gives regular presentations on autism to teachers, parents and kids at Pathways, as well as performing and speaking at the centre’s annual children’s concert (part of the Centre’s Expressive Arts programming). In fact, he says, people sometimes ask him, “Are you sure you have autism?”

He’s sure. But he’s grateful to Pathways for the speech therapy and other treatment he received there until he was 8, after which he went to school full-time along with an education assistant. “At Pathways, they literally helped me find my voice,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was 6 or 7 that I could speak in complete sentences.”

Chris says his devoted parents, Tim and Sandra—both teachers, went through a series of doctors and experts before finding the right treatment at Pathways. Then came another breakthrough. When he was 9, his parents signed him up for piano lessons. In the car that summer he heard Tom Petty’s song Free Fallin’ on the radio. When he came home, he played it totally by ear on the piano. “That’s when my family realized, and I realized, that I had a gift for music.”

By high school, he was begging the senior band teacher to let him play saxophone, which he’d fallen in love with after hearing a Bruce Springsteen album. “I was the only Grade 10 student playing in the band, which was pretty mind-boggling.” After graduation, he earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Humber College and the University of Guelph.

Today he plays regular gigs with his Trio, whose members came together at Humber, and also works in a family store his mother now runs. At his Pathways appearances, he talks to both kids and adults about how the centre has helped him in his life. “Whenever a teacher or a parent needs to hear first-hand experience with autism, they come to me for advice and I do a presentation,” he says. “I tell people that the autism spectrum is not really a line – it’s more like an umbrella covering all these different ways your brain develops.”

Despite his clear sociability, Chris says he still has difficulties with situations where he doesn’t feel in control. “That’s when I have to take steps back, learn how to breathe, remember it’s going to be OK and just roll with the punches.” He counsels young people to take inspiration from his life so far. “I say don’t be afraid to express your interests, no matter how quote ‘weird’ they may seem to other people. And don’t be afraid to make a career of it if that’s where your passion truly lies.”