Sixty-year old Tommy Onorato doesn’t let his age or autism diagnosis inhibit him from pursuing his passion of being a jazz singer with a Big Band.
By Nils Skudra
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch Tommy! The Dreams I Keep Inside Me, an intriguing documentary about Tommy Onorato, a 60-year-old man on the autism spectrum whose life-long dream is to sing in a jazz band.
This documentary was particularly compelling since it focuses on an older autistic individual in his sixties, given that most films and documentaries about autism tend to focus on young adults in their twenties and thirties, a period which would be considered the prime of their lives. I felt that Tommy’s story sent an uplifting message about the determination of an autistic individual to pursue their dreams, which can be an inspirational message for all viewers, both neurotypical and neurodiverse, and therefore I decided that the documentary merited this film review.
When Tommy is first introduced, he is shown reflecting on his experiences growing up as a child on the autism spectrum. He recalls that during the 1950s and 1960s, there was little understanding of his diagnosis and that people with autism would therefore have been considered mentally retarded and likely to be institutionalized.
Viewing this documentary from a 21st century lens, his insights are striking since neurodiverse millennials have grown up in a period characterized by increased understanding of the multifaceted nature of autism and its diverse range of characteristic, together with enhanced specialized services for autistic individuals to ensure their successful integration in the community. Tommy’s observations can therefore provide millennial viewers with a new perspective on the challenges of growing up with autism during a time in which these services were virtually nonexistent and opportunities for social integration were severely limited.
As the documentary progresses, it sheds light on Tommy’s daily routine. Living in a group home in Durham, North Carolina, he regularly goes to his job at a department store, where he enjoys a good rapport with his coworkers and brings an outgoing and friendly demeanor to his engagement with customers. After returning home, he enjoys listening to jazz and other popular music from the 1950s, singing the songs of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra. He relates that his dream job is to sing in a jazz band since he has a passionate love of jazz music, and he displays a remarkable knowledge of the history of jazz, noting its centrality to the development of modern American music.
To many viewers, this goal might seem unrealistic since Tommy is an autistic individual in his sixties, which would be considered the retirement age range in mainstream society. In addition, because of the widespread stereotypes about people on the spectrum, it might seem unlikely that a jazz band would accept someone with Tommy’s particular tendencies, but this does not deter him from pursuing his goals.
One day, while eating in a restaurant, Tommy listens to a jazz band performing for the audience, and he is intrigued by their expertise. He subsequently goes to the band leader and expresses his interest in singing with the band, highlighting his vocal skills and his passion for the subject matter. The band leader seems remarkably receptive to the idea and invites Tommy to audition for a singing role at the band’s next session. Tommy is thrilled to have this opportunity, and he eagerly accepts the invitation, expressing his enthusiasm to his living support specialist the next day as she takes him to the audition. Amazingly, he delivers a successful vocal performance and is featured in the band’s subsequent show at the restaurant, where he sings some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic songs.
Throughout the documentary, Tommy displays a profound optimism, together with remarkable humility and introspection about his identity as a person on the spectrum. He observes that he can only be who he is and move forward in life, which is a compelling insight since many neurodiverse individuals try to mask their symptoms to fit in, but there has a growing trend among the broader autistic community to embrace their identity as a positive thing, and Tommy perfectly embodies this trend.
While most people would probably dismiss the idea of a 60-year-old seeking a career in a jazz band, Tommy does not let his age or diagnosis inhibit him from pursuing his passion, and the success that he finds as a jazz singer can serve as an inspiration for people of all ages and abilities to achieve their academic and professional goals, with the support of family and friends.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.