By Johnny Jackson
A calmness appeared to sweep over the 13-year-old McDonough resident. Strumming his viola with a pointed confidence, Matthew Ramsey remarked that playing the stringed instrument was one of the highlights of his day.
"I think I've improved," said Ramsey, who 17 months ago struggled with making music.
Now a seventh-grader, Ramsey began his sixth-grade year in the Ola Middle School Band learning to play the trombone. By November, however, he was playing the viola in the school's string orchestra program.
"It makes me feel good," he said. "It reminds me to keep trying, and I'll eventually get good."
Ramsey is mildly autistic, according to his mother, Michelle Ramsey, who said the orchestra program has had a transformative effect on her son.
"Participating in the orchestra program at Ola Middle School has helped my son academically, emotionally and socially," Michelle Ramsey said. "Matt's older sister, Megan, also plays first chair viola in Ola High School's Chamber Orchestra. I think Matt first joined orchestra because he saw how much his older sister enjoys it."
Michelle Ramsey said she believes her son has gained as much and, perhaps, more than the average student would playing in the school's string orchestra.
Orchestra Director Carl Rieke "does a phenomenal job with helping all kids be successful and feel good about themselves," she continued. "Being a part of the orchestra has improved Matt's self-esteem, and he enjoys being part of a talented school group that performs and competes each year."
An estimated one in 110 children in the United States have autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC describes those with autistic disorder as having mild-to-significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests.
The Autism Society of America, currently celebrating its National Autism Awareness Month, recognizes art and music as "particularly useful in sensory integration, providing tactile, visual and auditory stimulation [... as well as] increasing communication skills, developing social interaction, and providing a sense of accomplishment."
Matthew Ramsey admits that he sometimes struggles academically and socially, when faced with situations outside his immediate comfort zone, but he said he has found a sort of therapy in playing the viola in his school's orchestra.
"With the viola, I try to relax and think things through before I actually do them," he said. "That wasn't the case before, because I was frustrated when I started getting all these [school] projects."
Matthew Ramsey now enjoys language arts, and is making some headway in his weaker subjects of science and social studies.
Rieke credits the teenager with having an innate joy of the creative arts.
"He was excited to be in orchestra, and took to learning it very quickly. He's keeping up with the curriculum and practices, and he's a wonderful all-around student," said Rieke.
Rieke, who started playing violin himself at the age of 6, on the recommendation of his piano teacher, said orchestra provides students with divergent means of expressing themselves outside of the traditional classroom.
"This gives them an outlet to be creative in different ways," he added. "I've got a number of students who look forward to coming to school because of orchestra. It's a different type of learning."