Making beautiful music in a noisy worldMany things in Kaczrowski’s life became easier to understand after his diagnosis. The noise sensitivity, the overload he would feel after interacting with people and the way he thrived on repetition and routine became clear. He explained how doing things the exact same way, every day, “freed his mind.” Thinking is processing, which is difficult for someone with Asperger’s.
By: Stacie Kimball, Alexandria Echo Press
Making beautiful music in a noisy world
A Man with Asperger’s syndrome focuses on the positives
The television musical comedy-drama Glee recently added a character, Sugar Motta, who says whatever she wants, but is quick to assert that she has “self-diagnosed Asperger’s.”
Andrew Kaczrowski of Alexandria knows first-hand that the reality of Asperger’s syndrome is much different than what is lightly depicted on the TV show.
Kaczrowski has Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. It is challenging, he notes, but he manages with a good understanding of his disability and by surrounding himself with people who are sensitive to his needs.
Looking back, Kaczrowski now realizes there were signs of Asperger’s early on. Adopted at the age of 18 months, he grew up in Marshall, where his dad was a family practice doctor. Kaczrowski, along with two sisters and one brother, who were also adopted, spent a lot of time at the family’s lake home near Alexandria.
At a young age he did things that made him unique, like writing the numbers 1 through 1,000 in kindergarten, when many children are working on writing numbers up to 100. And when his parents asked him, “How was school?” the energetic child answered by reciting, word-for-word, what the teachers said throughout the day.
As Kaczrowski talked about his childhood, he rubbed the soft, fuzzy red sock that complimented his silky white athletic suit. He described how, as a child, his parents had him wear wool sweaters to church.
“It felt like a thousand needles prickling my skin,” he explained. He has discovered that he prefers soft socks and athletic suits to button up cotton shirts and jeans.
“The other shirts…I can feel,” he said.
Kaczrowski attended high school in Marshall and played basketball, although he didn’t like going to basketball games because they were so loud.
“While I tried to go to the games, I couldn’t, because I can hear things really intensely,” he said.
He claims his noise sensitivity has been a curse, but also a blessing. It has assisted him in becoming a gifted pianist. By 6th grade, he was playing at church and for choirs.
Kaczrowski believes his acute hearing helps him play piano. He learns music after hearing it only once and he emulates the way others play through his listening abilities.
“It helps me so much with the piano,” he said. In contrast he remarked, “You can’t turn it off, though.”
He attended St. John’s University in Collegeville but found some of the daily tasks of a college student to be difficult. He struggled with reading because he couldn’t focus long enough to turn the pages over and over.
“I got through college listening to the professors talk,” he said, explaining that he retained the information better when hearing it than when reading it.
Music continued to be a part of Kaczrowski’s life, and he smiled when recalling how he was the only non-music major in college to have keys to the music rooms.
“I bothered the music people and they gave me the keys to the grand piano rooms,” he said. “I just wanted to have keys so I could play the grand pianos – and they let me.”
Kaczrowski overcame the difficulties he faced in reading and graduated from St. John’s in 1997 with a degree in psychology.
A DIAGNOSIS OF ASPERGER’S
When Kaczrowski was 26 he was employed as a high-speed laser print operator in Maple Grove. He felt he was having difficulties on the job because the noise level and bright lights were draining him of his energy and he couldn’t assess his job performance.
He sought out a professional opinion. A neuropsychological test revealed he had Asperger’s syndrome (see sidebar). Later, he received independent verification from the University of Pittsburgh through a series of tests and research studies.
At that time, Kaczrowski was laid off from his job. During the eight months he was unemployed, he focused on other interests, like chess. He worked on creating a large chess variant game that featured old and modern game pieces. The game is played on a large board and is complete with a self-written manual that includes a mythical legend to further explain the game.
Kaczrowski confessed he could talk about chess all day long – a symptom of Asperger’s where those affected dominate conversations with their own interests.
“I really only made it so I could play it,” he said with child-like enthusiasm. “I wanted something fun to play.”
Many things in Kaczrowski’s life became easier to understand after his diagnosis. The noise sensitivity, the overload he would feel after interacting with people and the way he thrived on repetition and routine became clear.
He explained how doing things the exact same way, every day, “freed his mind.” Thinking is processing, which is difficult for someone with Asperger’s.
LEARNING TO ADAPT
Kaczrowski and his wife, Karen, were married in 2007 and recently bought a home in Alexandria.
They have found owning their own home to be beneficial with Kaczrowski’s disability. It allows him to live more freely from distractions. Karen explained that when her husband lived in an apartment, people were always coming and going. It was difficult for him to interact with everyone.
“Asperger’s is a social, communication disability,” she said, “It’s not that he can’t communicate – it drains him.”
To avoid sensory overload, Kaczrowski does most of his shopping at night when there are fewer people in the stores.
“It’s great, because I can’t always predict where people are going to move to – and I don’t want to be in the way,” he explained.
Repetitive behaviors are common in people with Asperger’s.
Kaczrowski recently achieved an honor in the online gaming world by using this common symptom to his advantage. He achieved 200 million experience points in Runescape.
The online game has more than 10 million active accounts per day and Kaczrowski is ranked third among these players in the repetitive skill of runecrafting – an achievement of which both he and Karen are proud.
In his lifetime, Kaczrowski has been surprised at his own in-tune senses. Once, while holding his nephew, who was born premature, he sensed the baby was having difficulties breathing. Over and over he expressed his concerns.
“I was pretty annoying about it, too,” Kaczrowski admitted. That evening the baby became blue and was rushed to the hospital with breathing problems – just as Kaczrowski has sensed earlier.
Due to his heightened senses, Karen does what she can to keep things quiet for her husband at home. He can hear things most people can’t – like the hum of a downstairs computer while he is lying in bed upstairs. He has mitigated many of the issues at home by wearing special headphones that decrease the intensity of high tones.
“My wife is very understanding, too and often has to be careful about sound effects,” explained Kaczrowski. “I can hear her chew, swallow and hear her walking around.”
With a big smile, Karen added, “So when he plays piano, he likes me to sit quietly and not move.”
SHARING HIS MUSIC AND EXPERIENCE
The gifted pianist shares his love for music with others – performing on the Alexandria Jaycees Jingle Bells telethon for the last three years and playing piano at Knute Nelson and Nelson Gables in Alexandria.
Kaczrowski does what he can to help others understand Asperger’s by mentoring at Camp Courage North near Bemidji, a camp for youth with Asperger’s.
He has spoken at teachers’ conferences to help educators better understand how to work with students who struggle with autism and Asperger’s.
“My number one message is if a person is having issues, you are going to see the meltdown eventually. You must reduce the input to that person,” said Kaczrowski. “They have a disability of expression – they won’t be able to tell you what they are feeling, because that is also processing and how are they going to get that out?”
Kaczrowski has done so much to “fit in” with society while living with Asperger’s syndrome and admitted that he “puts on a mask” while in public, when really his energy is urging him to jump up and down and be excited. He deals with the conflicting feelings every day.
Kaczrowski’s favorite pianist is George Winston, and the first song he played on Jingle Bells was Winston’s Thanksgiving, maybe an indication of how the man with Asperger’s feels today.
“I think I’ve come a long way,” said Kaczrowski. “I have overcome difficulties – there are a lot of obstacles.”
LOCAL SUPPORT GROUP
Andrew Kaczrowski and his wife, Karen Salem, along with Helen Wagner, a social worker with Andhe’s Disability Services, co-founded a free support group for people ages 15 and older with Asperger‘s.
Meetings are the first Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. at the 700 Cedar Building, 700 Cedar Street, Room 111 in Alexandria.
Friends or family members of those affected by Asperger’s are also welcome. The group welcomes invitations to speak about Asperger’s to groups, agencies or businesses wanting to learn more.
For more information, call Wagner at (320) 762-9556.