On Monday and Thursday afternoons, the members of the Crescent Club Quartet jazz band assemble in the sunroom of a Hixson, Tenn. home, ready to practice.
Bandleader James Mathis will tap his music stand and call a time.
“One and a two and a one, two, three, four…”
In unison, four young men — all of whom happen to be on the autism spectrum — will begin playing a beautiful rendition of a jazz standard.
Forming a band of brothers
The Crescent Club Quartet was formed in 2015 by three brothers — Mitchell, Paul and Edward Newton — as an outgrowth of music lessons they were taking with Mathis. Later on, they added their friend, Tyler Benson, on trumpet.
They chose to play jazz because it was fun and challenging and because Mathis, a jazz major in college, had shared his love of the form with the boys.
The three Newton boys are talented musicians:
- Mitch, 20, plays drums for the band. He also plays guitar and piano and has perfect pitch.
- Paul, the 16-year-old on saxophone, also plays violin, guitar, piano and clarinet.
- Edward, 25, plays bass.
The accomplishments of the Newton boys are especially significant given that all were formally diagnosed with autism before age 3. Their mother, Tawnia Newton, recalls that Paul had been identified as high-functioning, but Mitchell and Edward were considered more severe cases.
“For my two oldest sons, it was, ‘Statistically, we can’t give you any hope,’” she says.
But Tawnia and her husband, Joe, were determined to help their sons beat the odds.
“My goal was to make their life as happy as we could, and my husband’s goal was to make them contributing members of society,” she says.
The family enrolled each of the boys in special early childhood programs to encourage their development. Once they entered school, the Newtons insisted on keeping all three in regular classes whenever possible, a process known as mainstreaming.
“Throughout school, the boys always had classmates that were willing to help them out, which made a huge difference in the development of their social skills,” says Tawnia. “Church was important, as well — the church is very good about trying to include everyone.”
In 2017, Edward and Mitch became part of the BlueCare Tennessee ECF CHOICES program, which stands for “Employment and Community First.” Together with their support coordinator Shawn Ellis, the family determined that it might be possible for the two to live on their own.
Under the new plan, aides would visit them at home each afternoon for about six hours, helping ensure the two young men stay on track with household tasks and personal care, and taking them to social events and other activities as needed. Both would participate in volunteer work opportunities with an eye toward gainful employment.
“Initially, the boys were really nervous. The first thing Edward said was, ‘I don’t want to move because Mom won’t cook for me anymore!’” says Tawnia with a laugh.
Within a couple of weeks of moving into their house, however, Edward and Mitch began to embrace their independence.
Meeting new challenges
With the ECF CHOICES services in place, Mitch made so much progress that he was able to graduate from high school in December — two and a half years earlier than anyone expected. He’s currently enrolled in a community re-entry program that helps participants develop soft skills (communication, emotional intelligence, people skills, etc.) through volunteer work opportunities.
Edward completed the same program, and now holds a part-time job at a store within walking distance from their home.
The two are also cooking for themselves and doing laundry.
“They’ve set off a few fire alarms, but they’re learning,” says Tawnia. “Their aides help make sure that they eat well.”
After moving into their house in the summer of 2017, Mitch and Edward turned a room off the kitchen into their rehearsal space, and established their Monday-and-Thursday practice schedule with the goal of eventually booking gigs.
Their ECF CHOICES support coordinator helped connect the group with event managers who could give them the chance to perform in public. The group debuted at the Chattanooga Autism Walk last November. Since then, they’ve played church events and are looking forward to adding gigs to their calendar. They’ll perform for BlueCross employees at the end of April.
“We just want to play as much as we can,” says Mathis, who also serves as an aide to Mitch and Edward.
“There’s no question that the ECF CHOICES program has been amazing for the boys,” says Tawnia.
“I am beyond grateful for all that they’ve helped Edward and Mitch accomplish.”