There is a special connection between music and autism - and Jerry Ryan has seen first-hand how an instrument and the right music teacher can change a child's life.
For Ryan's 10-year-old son Jeremy, who is autistic with limited verbal abilities, it was the piano that provided him with a new way to communicate with those around him. Music, Ryan soon learned, had another purpose he never fully realized - to help and to heal.
"He'll talk around the house and tell us what he wants, but when it comes down to communicating, he communicates through art and music," says Ryan, 37, of Smithville.
So Ryan, the organizer behind the annual Elephant Talk Indie Music Festival in Atlantic City, tapped his many music connections last year and formed the Elephants for Autism Music Festival in Atlantic City. For this year's second annual event, taking place Friday, May 17, through Sunday, May 19, at Le Grand Fromage and The Boneyard Bar & Grill, more than 100 bands will play over three days on four stages. All proceeds from this year's festival will go to The Music Academy for Special Learners in Long Island, N.Y.
"(People) can expect great music," Ryan says. "I always try to book the best bands I possibly can. Great people and a great atmosphere."
So far, approximately 125 bands are booked to play the festival - though that number will likely grow by festival time. Last year's Elephants for Autism festival saw more than 1,000 attendees and raised about $5,000, Ryan says.
"This really goes back 10 years ... back to when my son was diagnosed with autism," Ryan says. "Over time, the connection he and I have with music … I felt the need to do something and help other kids. He's a great piano player, and we have no problem paying that money for music lessons."
But for some parents, Ryan says, music lessons are an expensive luxury. Through proceeds raised from the festival, special needs students from economically disadvantaged families can get the opportunity to receive music therapy for free.
In 2012, Ryan opened his own local music school for autistic children - the Ozan Music School - hiring a teacher, Faith Ozan, to provide lessons to 10 children out of a small community complex in Galloway Township. But when Ozan's Absecon home was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy last October, she was forced to move back to California, putting the new school in limbo just as it was getting off the ground.
To date, Ryan has not hired a new music teacher. He hopes to see Ozan, whom he has called "a godsend," eventually return.
"So here I am 100 bands deep, so I have to find another school (to support)," Ryan says. "I can't raise money for a school that doesn't exist."
When a friend told him about The Music Academy for Special Learners in Long Island, he knew he found the right cause for this year's benefit, he says.
"She's doing the exact same thing," Ryan says of the school's director. "Teaching kids to love and appreciate music in a peaceful setting. I never cared whether the money stayed local - which I preferred - or whether it went to teaching kids in Japan with autism. As long as kids are benefitting, I'm happy."
Ryan has big goals - not just re-opening the local music school, but expanding it - and continuing to grow the festival into an even bigger event. He sees a worthy cause that continues to grow for years to come.
"I can't stop now," Ryan says. "I said as soon as I started last year, once I commit, it's a lifelong thing. I can die happy one day knowing that I did everything I could to ensure a brighter future for these kids."