The sound of pounding piano keys in Allison Ziering Walmark’s Westport, Connecticut, home is music to her ears — it means her son Ethan Walmark is chasing his dream.
The 11-year-old fifth grader, who has autism spectrum disorder, has been making incredible music since he was just over a year old. A musical prodigy, he taught himself to play the piano, drums and guitar. And his mom Allison has been his biggest fan since day one.
“When he was 15 months old, my parents got him this little piano and all of the sudden we would hear tunes like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ thinking it was the TV — and it was Ethan,” Allison tells PEOPLE.
“He always loved music, even as a baby,” she adds. “If I was changing a diaper and needed to distract him, I would play music and he would be quiet. I used to call it musical crack!”
Music also played an important role when Allison and her husband Michael Walmark learned their son was on the autism spectrum.
“I started to notice little things when he was around a year old, like he wasn’t pointing and he wasn’t clapping. And my friends’ children were,” she says. “He became sort of a different child. He would cry all the time, he wouldn’t look at you. And when you called his name, he would not turn around.”
The concerned parents took Ethan to a Birth to 3 early intervention program to have him evaluated. They were told that Ethan qualified for services. Soon after, they learned that Ethan had autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1 in 68 children have been identified with some form of ASD.
Allison and Michael inundated their son with services.
“We got him speech therapy, we got him occupational therapy, anything you could think of and then someone suggested that we might want to get him music therapy,” she says.
They got him involved with the School of Rock program in Fairfield, which turned out to be a transformative experience for Ethan.
“He just blossomed,” Allison says. “Socially, psychologically, physically — music had been his outlet and his way of communicating. He recognized that when he played music, he made people happy and people would flock to him.”
Ethan now plays for two local bands through the program: the school’s house band and a cover band called Clueless, which has performed at Autism Rocks benefit concerts.
Ethan’s natural talent has led to some amazing opportunities, including a special shout-out from Billy Joel after a video of Ethan playing “Piano Man” went viral when he was just 6 years old. He’s also met one of his favorite musicians, John Mayer, and most recently, he sang the National Anthem at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey before a Major League Soccer game.
The Walmark home is now filled with music and laugher — and the occasional sibling fight. Ethan and his younger sister, Eliza, 10, love to put on plays and shows — he’ll play the piano while she dances.
“They’re so protective of each other and they just love each other and they fight like a typical brother and sister, which is perfect,” Allison says. “Nobody wants to see their kids fight, but because Ethan is on the spectrum, to see him fighting with his sister is the most beautiful noise I could ever hear.”
Allison now wants to bring awareness to the importance of music and art programs in schools.
“It’s just devastating to think that arts programs will be cut,” she says. “I see how much it brought Ethan along, cognitively and socially. Before Ethan could even talk, music was the way for him to communicate. Study after study promotes the importance of music — music helps the brain, music builds the brain.”
And of all the advice that Allison has received over the years when it comes to Ethan, she’s most thankful for the one piece of advice she didn’t take.
“We had a teacher early on who said to take music away from him, that he gets lost in the music and you want him in your world. But I said to myself, ‘Music makes him happy, I can’t do this to him.’
“And music is what brought him out — and into my world.”