Christopher Duffley stepped up to the stage and sang “Lean On Me” at the Charitable Foundation’s Annual Meeting on June 12, 2014. Photo by Cheryl Senter.

Christopher Duffley stepped up to the stage and sang “Lean On Me” at the Charitable Foundation’s Annual Meeting on June 12, 2014. Photo by Cheryl Senter.

Music therapy helped Christopher find his voice

Manchester Community Music School program helps kids communicate with music

Have you heard this kid sing?

Christopher Duffley stepped up to the stage and sang “Lean On Me” at the Charitable Foundation’s Annual Meeting on June 12.

Christopher is a 13-year-old musician from Manchester who is blind and has autism. He also has perfect pitch. And an enthusiasm for belting out a tune that is evident to anyone who has ever heard him sing — from a capacity crowd at Fenway Park to the attendees at the American Academy of Pediatrics conference.

“It makes me feel excited,” to sing for people, Christopher said, “I give them hope and make them feel happy.”

Christopher was born 14 weeks premature and with drugs in his system. He weighed one pound, 12 ounces. His blindness was the result of his extreme premature birth. He was adopted by his aunt and uncle — who are now his mom and dad.

“We want to live out our faith,” said his mom, Christine Duffley, whose brother is Christopher’s biological father. “Christopher came into our home because we wanted to put our faith into action — and you don’t leave a family member behind.” The Duffleys have four other children.

Christopher was around five when he was diagnosed with autism.

His speech pattern was echolalic — meaning he would repeat back what he heard — but he had little ability to communicate.

Music changed that.

Christopher entered the Music Therapy Program at the Manchester Community Music School in 2008. Funding from the Foundation had helped to launch that program in 2006.

Christopher’s family knew that he liked to pick out simple tunes on toy pianos. They thought music therapy might be worth a try. Other therapies had not helped very much, Christine said.

After Christopher’s first session in the Music Therapy program, teacher Shannon Laine emerged with a huge smile. She informed Christine that her son had perfect pitch. But, even more importantly, “She said that, using music as a communication tool, he would be able to connect things and process things differently — not only music-wise, but he would communicate better,” Christine said.

So the Duffley family learned to communicate with songs — songs about putting on socks and shoes, or about shampoo.

Music therapy, said Christine, gave Christopher “a gradual ability to communicate.”

Music therapy helped Christopher focus on speech and language skills.

“He developed the ability to form full sentences and have a conversation and get rid of echolalic speech,” said Manchester Community Music School Executive Director Jeanine Tousignant. “It helped him to start to develop some creative and critical thinking skills.”

And Christopher’s pitch is indeed perfect.

“He would come up to my office and say, ‘Miss Jeanine, the piano in room 102 needs to be tuned.’ And he was right,” said Tousignant.

Christopher performed at the Music School, and at his elementary school. Word spread, and soon he was singing “Lean on Me” to thousands of Teamsters at a national conference.

Tousignant talks to a lot of people about how essential music and music education are. And it’s not about recognition and fame, fun as those can be — it’s about improving lives.

“Many of our kids are not speaking when they’re eight, nine, 10 years old,” Tousignant said. “And they say their first words through music therapy…they say ‘mommy’ when they’re 10 years old.”

Christopher’s favorite song to sing is “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”

“I see with my heart,” Christopher said. “I do have physical eyes, but I can’t see with them because I am blind. I see with my hands and heart and other senses.”

“He likes knowing that he’s making people happy,” Christine said. “And he understands that he is an inspiration, and that he’s some people’s hero…we have told him that he is an ambassador for everyone who is different.”

“I’m special just the way I am,” Christopher said.