Michael Lahnala is like many 25-year-olds his age: he looks forward to graduating from college, has a full time job, is passionate for politics, loves music and the internet. By many standards Michael is a successful and productive member of society; however, when Michael was two years old he was diagnosed with a disability that carried the stigma he would never become a functioning adult. Michael was diagnosed with autism.
Michael’s mother, Beth Varney, recalls her son at a young age, “At 18 months he still wasn’t talking, acknowledging, he acted deaf…yet he would be in the backroom and as soon as some commercial came on with music, he’d run out to watch the commercial, then he’d disappear again.”
Michael grew up in a world where he was “oblivious to everybody,” says his mother. Michael describes his own personality at a young age as an “absence” of one. He met kids in his middle school music class where he was first chair saxophonist, but he never actually hung out with any of them.
The one constant in Michael’s life was music.
“Music was always a part of Michael,” says his mother.
One of the biggest positive changing points in Michael’s life was when he was 17 years old and joined Note-Able Music Therapy Services.
Michael volunteered teaching saxophone lessons and also participated in the Exploring Music classes. Now eight years later Michael plays bass and sings in the Note-Ables band.
“They [Note-Ables] were a lifesaver for Michael,” says his mother.
“I know that it has helped me,” says Michael. He cannot pinpoint specifically how but he told his mother once, “I feel like I don’t have a disability there.”
With the Note-Ables band, Michael is comfortable being himself and socializes. He jokes and laughs with other band members about obscure music knowledge. He knows and sings the lyrics to many songs you’ve probably never heard of. And he will gladly talk to you, especially if it relates to music.
“People with disabilities are forgotten a lot. When they have music, some people who can’t even talk, can sing. If music makes you feel good and makes me feel good, it makes people of all abilities feel good…People forget that people with disabilities have talents, they think that they don’t hear the music, they don’t understand the beats. To me the Note-Ables brings all that in,” says Beth Varney.
Through music Michael has become self-actualized. He has found so much of himself that he was never aware existed; his own independence, sense of humor, belonging, confidence, expression, happiness, and so much more. What the Note-Ables have done for Michael – and for the more than 100 children and adults per week the non-profit sees – is given him an opportunity to tap into his own identity and express himself through music.
“For many of the people that go to the Note-Ables, this is probably the best way that they can move forward,” says Beth.
Michael is now living on his own in a new apartment and is graduating from college this spring with an associates degree in applied science with emphasis in networking.
“I am very proud of him, always have been. Every milestone he has taken,” says Beth as she turns and to look him in the eye. “What I see in you is someone who never spoke, never offered an opinion, never spoke up to defend himself, and all of a sudden you’re doing all of that.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of Michael’s growth from when he barely spoke a word is when he performs with the band. During the Basement Sessions performances (a monthly acoustic performance for the community) Michael confidently steps forward in front of the band. Alone in front of the audience he sings Ho Hey by The Lumineers, projecting the words beautifully, loud and clear, “So show me family, All the blood that I will bleed, I don’t know where I belong, I don’t know where I went wrong, But I can write a song…”
“They told me he might not be able to do anything, look at him now,” says his mother.