Guitarist with autism no longer plays in darkness

By Mike Wagner - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS (AP) — The only audience Zayne Harshaw trusted when he started playing the electric guitar was the darkness.

He locked the bedroom door, turned off the lights and for months the then-14-year-old would strum alone, too fearful to let anyone see him working to mimic the music of legendary guitar players.

Then one day Zayne placed his amplifier in the window when his dad and older brother were walking out of their Gahanna home.

Gene Harshaw heard Jimmy Hendrix’s famous “Purple Haze” guitar intro blaring and told his oldest boy, Marquise, to go tell Zayne to turn the radio down.

“Dad that isn’t the radio,” Marquise said. “That’s Zayne playing.”

When Zayne was 4, he was formally diagnosed with autism. Gene and Gwendolyn Harshaw were told their little boy wouldn’t have much of a life. He wouldn’t be able to read. He wouldn’t feel emotion. He wouldn’t be able to engage with other children. And dad especially feared that his son would be a pinata for school bullies.

Now 24, Zayne is playing paid gigs with his Blue Spectrum band at music festivals and other events across the country, and proving those doctors wrong with a gift he developed in the dark.

Gene started sobbing, remembering the day he stood quietly in his son’s bedroom doorway without Zayne knowing he was there. He was astonished seeing for the first time what his son could do with a guitar.

“I stood there and my mind drifted back to the day in the doctor’s office,” Gene said. “I didn’t think he would be able to stick up for himself and the world would never get to see who he could be. My boy can play, man, he can really play.”

Zayne’s dream of forming a band started as a young boy when he would walk up to strangers and ask them if they wanted to be in his imaginary band. But it became a reality years later at age 17, when the guitarist teamed up with three other autistic young people to form the band Blue Spectrum, named mainly because blue is Zayne’s favorite color.

The band has evolved over the years and now includes just one other autistic member, Amelia Rose, 22, the keyboardist. The other band members are Zayne’s uncle Al Jefferson, 53, the lead vocalist; Clarence Bowles, 52, the drummer; and Cliff Marsh, 53, who plays the saxophone. The cover band mainly plays rock, blues and jazz music depending on whatever the group is feeling.

They all follow the lead of the man who would often sleep with his guitar at night.

“The doctors were wrong,” Zayne said. “I know I’m a little different and I get nervous about it, but when I get on the stage I feel like it’s where I belong. I can’t explain it. I just love to play.”

The first time Zayne was invited to play in front of a crowd at age 15 he felt paralyzed. His body froze, and he couldn’t lift his guitar. He stared straight down, afraid to make eye contact with the audience. He eventually walked off the stage without playing a single note.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that he found the courage to play in front of a large crowd again, this time at his high school talent show his junior year. He was declared the winner, and it was at that moment that his parents realized Zayne’s guitar playing was more than a casual hobby.

“We were all blown away by what we saw in that talent show,” said Gwendolyn, who along with Gene manages Zayne’s music career. “When you learn that your child has autism, it feels like a death. You have to mourn and realize you don’t have the child you thought you had. It becomes about what can you do to support the child you do have. And that’s what we do for Zayne every day with his gift for music.”

Zayne still doesn’t like to look most people in the eye. He usually is wearing prescription sunglasses so he doesn’t have to. When he talks with someone, his eyes are usually pointed down or he is looking away, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t absorbing every word.

On stage he has learned to escape the nerves by creating a different scene in his mind depending on what note he might be playing. If he is playing a blues tune, he might picture himself dancing with folks in a flower-laced field. If he hears a classical note, he imagines standing in line with people dressed in gowns and tuxedos waiting to get into a theater.

The alternative reality helps him forget there is an audience in front of him.

“I know that sounds weird, but it’s a way for me to not let my emotions get in the way of what I’m doing,” Zayne said. “I feel free that way.”

Zayne is standing behind a stack of speakers and amplifiers, almost hiding before his band starts performing Downtown at an autism fundraising event along the Scioto River in late July. There are only a few people in the crowd on a 93-degree day, but that doesn’t matter to Zayne, who still feels the anxiety whether there are five people or a thousand watching him play. But the moment the concert starts, Zayne is playing off the feel of the music, just like he did in that dark bedroom.

“I don’t think of Zayne as someone with autism, I just see him as an amazing performer,” said Rose, the keyboard player who has made significant progress overcoming her own challenges with autism. “He can do things most people can’t with any instrument.”

Zayne still struggles to read music, but he is among the rare group of people who are considered to have absolute or perfect pitch. That means Zayne can hear a single note with no reference point and know whether it’s an A-flat or B-minor or another note. A number of studies have shown that people with autism are more likely to have that gift.

“His guitar teacher had Zayne turn his back, and every note he played Zayne recognized it immediately,” Gwendolyn said. “Then the same with two notes and even with three notes. My reaction was one of fear because I was astounded by his gift.”

Zayne’s stature continues to grow, and the Harshaws aren’t sure how far or how big his career will get. They are just as concerned about helping him have the life he wants when he isn’t playing the guitar. He continues to live with his parents, and his next goal is to be able to drive. He has passed his driving tests, but his occupational therapist says he isn’t ready to be on the road alone.

It’s just the latest challenge Zayne is confident he will conquer.

“I know I already said this, but the doctor was wrong,” Zayne said while grinning. “And I don’t play in the dark anymore.”


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch,

By Mike Wagner

The Columbus Dispatch