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Apr 9, 2017

IFUNANYA “NODDY” NWEKE is the founder and executive director of Jazz Hands for Autism (JHFA). The non-profit organization provides platforms for musically inclined individuals on the autism spectrum to explore and express their talent, and helps many of its gifted musicians find steady paying gigs. (35:27)




There’s no choosing the talents any one of us are born with – nor the challenges. I would love to have a natural talent for music. I don’t. But I also don’t have autism. IFUNANYA NWEKE knows plenty of people who have both. Ifunanya is the founder and executive director of JAZZ HANDS FOR AUTISM (JHFA), a non-profit organization that provides platforms and seeks avenues for musically inclined individuals who are on the autism spectrum to explore and express their talent.

As she tells me on her PIERSON TO PERSON episode THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM: “Music is processed differently than speech. It’s processed using almost every single structure in the brain. That kind of processing helps bypass many different challenges that people with autism have. There are people with autism who can sing, but cannot speak. That’s amazing to me.”

Ifunanya (known to friends and colleagues as Noddy) was born in Nigeria and studied anthropology at UCLA with an emphasis in psychology. She went on to become one of the first graduates of USC’s Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program. Add to that Ifunanya’s background as a musician, a vocal and piano coach for young children with autism and an ABA trained behavior interventionist and it’s not hard to see how she might create an organization like JHFA. But WHY did she do it? Her answer was matter-of-fact: “Ruben.”

Ifunanya first met Ruben J. while observing a mainstream high school music class – he was the only autistic student in the class. Just 15 at the time, Ifunanya was blown away by his singing and piano playing abilities (he also plays drums, guitar, and trumpet). “In that moment I was like, Why is there no place where he can really express this often? Why is there no place he can go and just be Ruben in his musical essence? And so, from that day, I started drafting a preliminary program.”

In addition to its regular concert series, JHFA offers autistic musicians a comprehensive job training program to help them become contributing members of society by using their talents and newfound skills to land jobs as working musicians. “They’re learning how to be better performers, learning how to make eye-contact, how to be aware of what their bodies are doing on stage, and learning how to interact with their audience.” They also receive valuable work readiness training. “Not only do you have to be a good performer, you also have to know how to get there on time and how to dress for that setting.”

But JHFA’s approach is more than theoretical – there’s a job placement piece to it, as well. “We’re going out and really helping them find gigs in the community where they’re performing and making money. Our goal is to find them consistent work, like being a session musician, playing at retirement homes, or playing at a church. Playing at a church is one of the most consistent gigs there is.”

I recently sat in on one of JHFA’s Saturday afternoon jam sessions and had the pleasure of meeting both Ruben J. and his mother, Lili. I asked her what the program has meant for her son: “Meeting Noddy was a godsend. She’s provided a platform for him to express what comes naturally to him. It’s in his wheelhouse. What a wonderful gift it’s been that there’s one area in his life where he feels really confident. And he’s able to express that in a way that seems natural to him. He feels good about himself. He feels successful. As a parent, that’s what we all want for our children.”