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Patients in the Spotlight: Zachary Slade

Piano Unlocks Boy's Potential

When Zachary Slade was an infant, his mother, Maria, knew something was different about him. He was colicky, he did not coo and unlike how otherZachary Slade mothers describe locking gazes with their babies while feeding, Zach never made eye contact. In her gut, Maria knew that Zach had autism, but because he was so young, no doctor could officially diagnose him.

At 18 months, Zachary’s pediatrician, Marc Ritter, M.D., offered to set up an appointment with a specialist at Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. “She’s the best,” Ritter told Maria.

One year later, Maria and Zach made the two-and-a-half hour trip to Rochester to meet with Susan Hyman, M.D., chief of Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, who diagnosed Zach with an autism spectrum disorder at just 2 ½ years old. It was then that Zach began the specific treatment and services he needed. Right away, Hyman helped Maria get Zach into an integrated pre-school program in their hometown where he would attend school for the next three years.

As a toddler, Maria and Zach would watch children’s programs that emphasized music, and Maria noticed Zach’s fascination. She had elementary piano skills and would play for him on their piano at home.

“He would hear the music and would smile a smile that you never really see him do; it was a real smile,” Maria said. When Zach turned 3, Maria tried her best to find someone who would teach Zach how to play the piano. Because he was so young, no one would agree to teach him. When he was 4, Maria heard back from Ewa Lawrence, in Utica, NY, who agreed to give ZZachary Slade 2ach piano lessons.

Maria believes that there is a direct correlation between Zach’s music therapy and his social skills. She said that after the first month of lessons he was already showing improvements in school — he could tolerate conversation with others, something he had not done before.

In the five years since Zachary began playing piano, he has accomplished more than the average 9 year old. At age 6 he played in a showcase where he had to perform 15 pieces, all of which had to be memorized. Zach was previously awarded the “Early Bach Medal” from the National Guild of Piano Teachers, becoming one of the youngest students in the country to receive the award. He has competed against children and teens from around the world in Poland where he earned third place in the “under age 11” category, as well as performed in front of hundreds of people at last year’s Golisano Children’s Hospital Gala. He loves to play in front of big crowds of people. “Music makes people happy, and I like to play to make them happy,” Zach said.

When Zach gets a new piece to practice, he perfects it, performs it and moves on to the next one. He enjoys the challenge and is always looking for something more difficult than the previous piece. He is currently working on a piece that he saw performed by the 11-year-old pianist who won the competition he attended in Poland last year.

Zach devotes at least an hour-and-a-half of practice to the piano every day. However, he has also managed to earn his purple belt in karate, and is working towards his brown belt. He enjoys karate, but if you ask him what he wants to do when he grows older he doesn’t tell you what he wants to be, but what he is going to be: “I am going to be a pianist.”