When Ifunanya Nweke began working with students on the autism spectrum and weaving her love of music with behavior intervention, she knew she’d found her calling. And part of what draws her to this work is rooted in family experience.
While training to be a behavior interventionist in 2014, Nweke met Ruben, a charismatic teenager and talented musician who struggled to find his place in the world and among his peers. She noticed that although he was working through some challenging behaviors, he flourished in music class.
“Ruben played a song, and his classmates followed him. They accompanied him. I couldn’t unsee that. In that moment, Ruben the teenage boy with autism took the back seat, and what emerged was Ruben the leader,” Nweke says.
The encounter with Ruben sparked her idea for Jazz Hands For Autism (JHFA), a Culver City nonprofit that provides a four-year educational and vocational program to help adults on the autism spectrum turn their musical talents into careers in the industry. Collaborative partnerships with employers have created work and internship opportunities in areas of performance, composition, music software, audio engineering, music teaching and pedagogy. JHFA also works with six of the seven regional centers for the developmentally disabled in L.A. County, which provides financial assistance to those interested in the vocational program.
JHFA began as a concert with three musicians in 2014 and has grown to nearly 20 musicians per concert. The biannual concert series evolved into the Jazz Hands Musicians Academy (JHMA) with a staff of 23. The academy has about 200 musicians, composed of current and past students, as well as teachers. Last year, Nweke added a junior academy, a 12-week program to help kids ages 8-17 on the spectrum improve their musical and social skills.
Nweke says it’s important to note that the majority of students the academy supports are adults. “Generally, the word autism is associated with the word child,” she says. “This sort of infantilization, which leads to stigma, is part of what we’re combatting through our work at Jazz Hands For Autism.”
Launching the academy was a natural transition for the ambitious Nweke, a singer/songwriter who taught herself to play the piano in high school. She earned a bachelor degree in anthropology from UCLA, a master in non-profit leadership and management from USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at USC Rossier School of Education. The Empowerment Congress recently honored her as one of 40 emerging civic leaders in L.A. County.
Nweke took a few minutes between work and classes — and planning for a May 28 concert — to chat with us about Jazz Hands For Autism.
You’ve said that your first experience with autism felt natural because you have been advocating for your brother. Can you explain?
My 27-year-old brother was diagnosed with ADHD last year and is still undergoing assessments to determine the extent. In addition to ADHD, I have always suspected that my brother might be on the autism spectrum. It was only when I had conversations with my brother, and separately with my mom and older brother, that I realized that we all had the same thought, even though he was never officially diagnosed.
Meeting Ruben was a turning point for you. Talk about that.
When Ruben and I met, an explosion of creativity happened, and that’s how JHFA was born. Since that day, I have worked to replicate this incredible experience for other musicians like Ruben who are on the spectrum.
Do all the kids and adults have musical talent or do they develop it in Jazz Hands?
Inclusion is really big at JHFA; that’s why we exist. So, if a person is passionate about making music a career, they can begin their journey at JHFA. This includes learning a new instrument or learning how to use their voice as an instrument. Everyone won’t be an onstage performer, but there are so many ways to turn music into a career.
What kind of music careers?
Content creation is big! So, if there is an aspiring musician who is on the autism spectrum who wants to be a performer but isn’t quite ready for the stage, we explore content creation for YouTube, Instagram, etc., as options.
Describe your team.
The team is a passionate and diverse group of musician-teachers – 99 percent has some kind of background in music. Compassion, collaboration, mission-focused, commitment to innovation and solid communication skills are key factors in the hiring decisions we make.
What’s next for JHFA?
We are always looking for ways to expand our roster of partners, and for ways to make a variety of music-based resources available to neurodivergent musicians from all over L.A. and beyond.
For more information, visit jazzhandsforautism.org.