By Darold Treffert, MD
Tony DeBlois is a musical savant I first met in 1989 when he was awarded a summer scholarship at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Tony so impressed the staff at Berklee that summer that he was admitted there as a full time student and graduated magna cum laude in 1996, a a striking achievement for someone both blind and autistic. Tony is a tremendous jazz musician and improvises freely, and impressively. He, and his mother Janice, were featured in a 1991 Today Show and also have been on CBS Sunday Morning. There have been many other television and media appearances since that time. Tony is autistic and blind with striking musical ability, which, while including spectacular jazz ability, extends to many other musical styles ranging from country to classic. He plays 14 musical instruments, 12 of them proficiently. Like many other musical savants, his ability surfaced at an astounding level when his mother bought him a chord organ at a garage sale when Tony was 2 years old. His story, and that of his dedicated proud mother was told in a CBS Movie of the Week, Journey to the Heart, which was broadcast nationally on March 2, 1997. More information about Tony can be obtained at his website www.tonydeblois.com.
Tony’s mother, Janice DeBlois, described his remarkable story this way:
“Born weighing 1 lb. 3/4 oz. was only the first obstacle that Tony DeBlois had to overcome. This 29-year-old pianist from Randolph, MA is blind, autistic and has Savant Syndrome. He has been playing the piano since age 2. He was the subject of the 1997 CBS made for TV Movie of the week ‘Journey of the Heart,’ which was inspired by actual events in Tony’s life. Additionally, he has appeared on 2 Catholic Global Showcase Specials (2001), The Learning Channel’s ‘Uncommon Genius’, Strange Science ‘Unusual People’, and ‘Understanding the Mysteries of Memory’. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them are Chou, Ta-Kuan Cultural and Educational Foundations Global ‘Love of Life Award’ (2002), the Faith and Family Foundation first Outstanding Achievement Award, the coveted Reynolds Society Achievement Award (1996), the Foundation for Exceptional Children’s prestigious ‘Yes, I can’ Award for 1993 and the Panasonic Sponsored, VSAarts Itzhak Perlman Award (1992). As Tony’s ‘Let me do it independently’ attitude inspires many people who meet him, his talents are being noticed internationally, hence his returning concerts to both Singapore and Taiwan and upcoming performances in Dublin and Limerick, Ireland. Stories about him have been broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR), Voice of America Radio and Talk America. Spots about him aired in documentaries in Rome, London, Japan and Australia. Tony is the inspiration for the book ‘Fred’s Prayer Machine’ (Ambassador Book 5/02) and he will be appearing in two Psychology textbooks referencing autism. All this fame has not daunted Tony’s excitement about learning. His studies at Perkins School for the Blind earned him a Certificate of Achievement but, his hard work at Berklee College of Music paid off; he graduated magna cum laude on Mother’s Day 1996.
“When not on tour, Tony enjoys singing with St. Mary’s Choir, performing with his band ‘Goodnuf’ and spending time with his girlfriend. Besides piano, Tony enjoys playing the organ, harmonica, guitar, harpsichord, English handbells, violin, banjo, drums and trumpet, and is now learning saxophone, clarinet, ukulele, mandolin and flute. When not playing musical instruments, Tony enjoys swimming, exercise equipment, the computer, Mystery Tours and has just learned to ballroom dance. For Tony there are no ‘roadblocks’ but mere obstacles to be cast aside or skirted. His favorite phrase seems to be ‘I haven’t learned that yet.'”
The book Some Kind of Genius: The Extraordinary Journey of Musical Savant Tony DeBlois was released in 2005. It is written by Janice DeBlois, Tony’s mother, and Antonia Felix. A particular chapter — “Islands of Genius: The Mystery of Savant Syndrome” — describes the circumstances of my first meeting with Tony. It also summarizes present-day information about musical savants including where Tony fits into that remarkable phenomenon, particularly the intriguing triad of visual impairment, mental disability and musical genius that re-occurs so rarely, but conspicuously, in savant syndrome through the past 100+ years.
Overall the book demonstrates dramatically what can happen with a focus on a-bility rather than dis-ability on the part of parents, teachers and others. It also provides a roadmap of love, and advocacy, for parents of children with disabilities through Janice DeBlois’s example. In my search to better understand savant syndrome, it is from persons like Tony and his mom that I’ve learned as much about matters of the heart as I have about the workings of the mind. This book is about both.
DeBlois, J., & Felix, A. (2005). Some kind of genius: The extraordinary journey of musical savant Tony DeBlois. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press.
Treffert, D. A., & Tammet, D. (2012). Islands of genius: The bountiful mind of the autistic, acquired, and sudden savant.