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The Prodigy

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Matt Savage is 10. He has to sit on the edge of the piano bench to reach the pedals. But the crowd at Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord, Mass.? Matt reaches them effortlessly, playing jazz with passion and eye-popping virtuosity. “Phenomenal,” says Boston-based saxophonist John Payne, who has performed with Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison and this afternoon is appearing on the same bill as Matt. “He sounds as good as any of the top pros in this town, and better than some.”

There’s something else about Matt: He suffers from a form of autism, a disability that impairs social interaction and communication. Remarkably, as a baby he couldn’t tolerate most noises. TV, the popcorn popper and windshield wipers provoked screams. “I couldn’t even talk while I was nursing,” says his mother, Diane, 40, who left her job as a computer programmer when Matt was born. He found some forms of physical contact unbearable as well. “If you kissed him, he’d pull away.”

But four years ago Diane watched in awe as he taught himself to play the piano. Since then, Matt has written 30-odd original songs and recorded four CDs (the latest: Groovin’ on Mount Everest), generating more than $5,000 in profits for autism research. In April he performed at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. He has wowed such masters as Chick Corea and Dave Brubeck.

Although about 10 percent of autism sufferers show some kind of savant ability—prodigious memory or math skills, for instance—”Matt has a tremendous creativity that’s usually absent,” says Dr. Bernard Rimland, founder of the Autism Society of America. “He can do what a lot of savants can’t: improvise. He’s an astonishing kid.”

Not least to his parents. For years Diane and her husband, Larry, 42, wondered what ailed their son. At social gatherings, “other parents would be sitting around chatting, and their children would be playing together,” says Diane. “We’d spend the whole time chasing Matt. It was just miserable.” At the same time, he possessed a precocious intellect. At 15 months, Diane recalls, he was lining up blocks in alphabetical order. The pediatrician chalked up Matt’s antisocial behavior to simple “hypersensitivity” and later, the “terrible twos.”

When he was expelled from preschool at age 3, however, Diane took him to Children’s Hospital in Boston. There, he was finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a milder variant of classic autism. Says his father: “Everything fell into place.” Larry quit his job as a software engineer and began working from home as a financial planner so he could care for their daughter Rebecca, now 7, while Diane focused on Mart’s needs. Under his parents’ patient care-he takes a low-dose antidepressant for anxiety and adheres to a wheat-and dairy-free diet that some researchers believe can help control autism symptoms-his behavior gradually improved.

Yet it wasn’t until 1998, shortly after his sixth birthday, that Matt revealed his gift. Following a round of audio integration therapy, in which digitally altered music is used to help the listener process sounds more effectively, Matt developed an interest in the family piano. Within a week, “he knew half notes, quarter notes, fortissimo,” says Diane. “Before his first lesson he completely knew how to read music.”

The following summer his parents took him to a crafts fair in Maine. Walking through a tent where a jazz band was rehearsing, Matt raced to the piano and began improvising. “He started playing, and everybody stopped,” recalls Diane. “They were astounded.”

Soon after returning home to Sudbury, Mass., he started lessons at the New England Conservatory of Music. He took instantly to jazz. “I like Miles [Davis], Charlie Parker-the greats,” says Matt, now a fourth grader at Israel Loring Elementary School. Last year, after jamming with drummer Steve Silverstein, 46, and bassist John Funkhouser, 35, at a local cafe, he formed the Matt Savage Trio. They play as often as twice a month, but no late nights. “Matt has to be in bed by 10,” says Funkhouser, “so gigs are always over by 9.”

Although at times Matt still has difficulty making conversation, “he’s a happy kid who likes to tell jokes,” says his mom, who believes his potential is limitless. A lover of mathematical brainteasers and chess problems, “he’s good at more than just jazz-it doesn’t define him,” says Diane. “It’s all up to Matt, and it always will be.”

Ting Yu

Tom Duffy in Sudbury