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Consumer Reports

Listening to Barry Manilow helps autistic boy make a language breakthrough | (KRT) SANTA ANA, Calif. - He's been warbling for years that he writes the songs that make the whole world sing, but when Barry Manilow got young Steven Conover crooning "Copacabana," Steven's mother, Jane, was floored.

The 5-year old boy is autistic. Until a few months ago, he had spoken only a handful of words, such as "moon down" and "sun up."

Lying in bed one recent night in their Huntington Beach home, Steven looked at his mom and said, with music in his voice: "I remember all my life."

Jane sat up. This was her son's first true sentence. But she was confused by what he was trying to tell her.

"I remember saying, `All your life, what? You're only 5 years old. What do you remember?'" she recalls.

A few minutes later, Steven sang again. "Raining down as cold as ice."

It was the 1970s Barry Manilow hit song "Mandy."

Jane knew it well because she is a huge Barry Manilow fan. In fact, she sings Manilow songs. Jane was half of a sister act, with Carrie, performing at parties on Catalina Island, Calif. The Blaty Sisters, they called themselves.

Jane's name was Jane Blaty. Until she married Tom Conover. They met doing "Pirates of Penzance" in the Avalon Community Theater.

They fell in love, with each other and the island. Tom earned a living as a skipper on a glass-bottomed boat. They decided to make Catalina their home.

First Mary was born. Four years later came Steven. Shortly before Steven turned 2, the parents had a sense something was wrong with their second-born.

Jane recalls a small circus coming to the island. A clown bent down in front of Steven and began making balloon animals.

"(Steven) looked right through him," Jane said. The clown shrugged his shoulders and walked away. There were other signs. He stopped making eye contact. And instead of talking, he howled and grunted. There was a lot of crying and screaming. His parents thought maybe he was deaf.

About the time he turned 2, they got a different diagnosis: autism. Doctors told Jane and Tom they would probably need to leave the island. It simply didn't have the support and schools they were going to need.

The family gave up their life on Catalina and boarded a ferry for the mainland, renting a townhouse in Huntington Beach, Calif. "We were devastated," Jane said. "We were going to retire there."

Jane turned to singing Manilow songs along with her CDs. Her stage is her minivan and her audience is her children, now including Jacob, 3. She guesses that's how Steven learned the words of the soft-rock legend.

The first time Steven requested "Manilow, Manilow" they were driving in the van. "I thought he said `manhole.' I said, `What the heck?' When she figured out he was asking for Barry, her husband popped the CD in. "I looked back at him and his face just lit up. You'd think he just walked into a candy store."

After that, his mom put a boombox on the floor in the corner of her bedroom along with some CDs, like "Manilow Sings Sinatra." When Steven wants to, he can go there and play the songs. His favorite is "Ultimate Manilow," 20 hits from the `70s and `80s.

Steven's current favorite song is "It's a Miracle." He listens to the song over and over, often stopping after the piano intro to start it over again. Sometimes he sings along.

Jane recently shared the news with Steven's teacher at Pleasant View Elementary School in Huntington Beach where he is in a class for children with special needs. Encouraged, his teacher has incorporated Barry into the boy's routine.

She laminated a picture of the softly-lighted showman and taped it to Steven's "request board." The board is a positive-reinforcement device.

A typical board is divided in half. On one side might be the word "first" and under that a picture of a dog; On the other side the word "then" and a picture of a fruit snack. In other words, say "dog," and you'll get a snack.

On Steven's board, Barry's photo is permanently pasted under the word "then." In other words, say "dog," and you'll get to hear a Barry Manilow song.

Steven gets to walk over to a couch, clap on a set of headphones - and spin a Manilow song on the boombox.

His parents say their son's vocabulary has grown about 200 words since the Barry breakthrough. "And since he has been talking more, he doesn't get as agitated." Dearer to their heart, they have a way to relate to her son.

Every day at 2:45 p.m. a yellow school bus pulls up in front of the Conovers' house.

Steven climbs down the steps and takes off running for a tree two doors down in a neighbor's yard. It's a thick, bushy tree. He climbs inside. His mom stands below him.

Jane starts. "You know I ..."

"Can't smile without you ...," her son sings.

He's still not looking at her, but it's a start.

After a few minutes of singing, he climbs down and ducks into a bush. "Her name is Lola," he sings. "She was a showgirl."

After this bit of "Copacabana," he's off to his house, looking for a popsicle.

Jane is having her great-grandmother's piano shipped here from Arizona. Lillieth Grand believes it's the smartest thing they can do.

Grand is executive director of Music Therapy Services of Orange County, Calif. With a degree in music therapy from the University of Kansas and a master's degree in special education, she contracts with seven school districts in Orange County to work with special needs students, particularly those with autism.

Grand said Steven's Barry connection doesn't surprise her at all.

"Music follows a different neurological pathway than language," she said. "Music actually offers us a different way in, if you will."

So a person's pathway for language can be damaged, as is the case for many autistic children, but their music pathways work.

Grand once had a child who could decode pretty much any word, even reading the newspaper, but it was all meaningless. Once she began singing stories to him, he answered questions that showed he was comprehending what he heard.

"Music is a very powerful tool," she said. The type of music depends on the person. "What sounds soothing to one person may sound annoying to someone else." Grand has one child now who is responding to rap. Another sings Frank Sinatra songs because that's what his dad listens to.

Often the child's preference is discovered in the same way Steven let his parents know he was a Manilow fan.

"It's the only thing they ask for," Grand said. "Or it's the one time of the day when they are calm."

Jane, in fact, refers to the corner of her bedroom where the boombox and Barry CDs sit as her son's "calm corner."

"Go to calm," she tells Steven when he gets wound up, pacing around the living room. "Go to calm." He runs down the hallway. Sprawls on her carpet. And presses play. Barry's vocals stir. And Steven starts to sing along.

Jane watches from the hallway with a smile. Could it be magic?

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services