Musical genius doesn’t let autism, blindness hold him back

| August 27, 2014 | 0 Comments
Tony Deblois first played a musical instrument at age 2, when his mother Janice bought him a Magnus Chord Organ. He now plays 23 instruments and will perform at St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis on Sept. 13. Photo courtesy of Janice Deblois

Tony Deblois first played a musical instrument at age 2, when his mother Janice bought him a Magnus Chord Organ. He now plays 23 instruments and will perform at St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis on Sept. 13. Photo courtesy of Janice Deblois

How does a teenage boy learn to comb his hair by playing the violin?

Ask Tony Deblois. The simple movement of this basic grooming function baffled him during his childhood years. Yet, as early as age 4, he was able to memorize a musical score by hearing it just once, then turn around and play it perfectly on, first the piano, and later the violin. He then adapted the movements of playing this stringed instrument to hair combing.

Such is the unusual life of an autistic savant, who also happens to be blind. The simplest tasks in life — like combing hair — can be a grueling challenge for him to learn. Yet, something as daunting as performing a concert in front of an audience full of strangers — which he has done since age 9 — doesn’t faze him in the least.

But, the most remarkable thing about his life is not his musical ability.

Rather, it’s the fact that he is alive at all. When his mother went into the delivery room of a hospital in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 22, 1974, exactly one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, she faced not only complications from premature labor, but also a tragic history with previous pregnancies.

Tony was her ninth pregnancy. Only two of the children made it to full term, and both died from medical complications during their first year of life.

Needless to say, there was little reason for Janice to be optimistic when she went into labor with Tony.

And, what she saw the day of his birth and for months afterward seemed to indicate that Tony would be lost child No. 9.

He weighed only 1 3/4 pounds when he was born, making it to only the 26th week of her pregnancy (full term is 40 weeks). In those days, babies born this premature often died.

Standing up for life

Aided by a team of doctors and nurses, Tony fought for his life in the hospital. And Janice stood up for her son when doctors began losing hope and stated that it might be best to “pull the plug.” Against the backdrop of a newly created abortion mentality, this Catholic mom stood up for life.

On Sept. 13, Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will get a chance to see the fruits of that courageous decision. Tony, who today lives with his mother in Randolph, Mass., will perform at St. Albert the Great in Minneapolis, with the proceeds going to Our Lady of Peace cancer home in St. Paul.

Those who come will see a man who plays 23 instruments and who draws from a repertoire of several thousand melodies, ranging from children’s tunes to classical scores like the “William Tell Overture.”

And, he will interact with the audience while doing it. In terms of his communications skills, he has advanced farther than some believe possible for an autistic person. He is not shy when it comes to expressing his passion for music — and for life. He has a simple, succinct summary of how he views his circumstances and how he encourages people to live their lives.

“I think it’s from God,” said Tony, now 40, of his musical talent. “The message we want to bring to parents is it’s OK to be different. Believe in yourself. Don’t give up on your dreams. Always have high hopes. And, the two most important words [in life] are: Thank you.”

And there’s one more thing, he added: “The three Ps are: practice, practice, practice.”

Tony Deblois concert at St. Albert the Great7-9 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13
St. Albert the Great, Minneapolis
Corner of E. 29th St. and 32nd Ave. S.

Tickets are $10 per person and $25 per family
For reserved seating, contact the St. Albert Rosary Altar Society at, and for more about Deblois, visit

Trying to hang on

When Tony was born, Janice had no idea that he quickly would develop into a remarkable musician. At that time, all she wanted to do was keep his fragile life going.

“He was so premature that his eyes were fused shut like a little baby kitten,” she said. “He technically died 12 times his first day of life. With all the tubes going into him, a blood clot formed on the end of the tube and broke off and went into his intestines. He had to have a colostomy at a couple days of age. The doctors said it was like operating on a drowned rat.”

It took a while for Tony’s health problems to get better. He was in the neonatal intensive care unit at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso for five months before finally going home.

Then, shortly after he went home, Janice’s mother came to help out, and saw that Tony had quit breathing.

“My husband, myself and my mom were taking care of him in eight-hour shifts ’round the clock,” Janice said. “My mom came to me one morning and said, ‘Jan, I don’t know what to do. He’s turned black.’ I grabbed him out of her hands and swept [off] the kitchen table, laid him down and started doing CPR on him.”

She called the ambulance, and back to the hospital he went. Eventually, he came back home again, but had the colostomy until he was 2.

A few months later, she decided it was time for him to learn to sit up. She wanted to give him a reason to do it, so she came up with an idea.

“I went to a garage sale and bought a little $10 Magnus Chord Organ,” she said, hoping the chance to play it would provide her son with an incentive to sit up. “The first six weeks were absolutely horrible. He put every combination of notes together that there was. Then, I heard him put the first three notes of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ together. And, I ran in there and showed him the rest of it. He picked it right up. All of his stuffed animals had music boxes in them. Pretty soon, he was playing all the songs from the music boxes on his animals.”

It grew from there. He has left the organ behind and now focuses on the two dozen instruments he has learned since he got started. And, even though it often is difficult for those with autism to speak, he has learned to add the words to his melodies — and not just in English.

“I sing in 11 different languages,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since the age of 2. I started taking piano lessons at 5, I started going out and playing professionally at nursing homes at 9.”

He is making his first appearance in the Twin Cities thanks to Marge Sehnert, president of St. Albert’s Rosary Altar Society. She happened to hear Tony perform in 1997 at a Marian Congress in Alexandria, S.D.

At the time, she was living in Owatonna and invited Tony to perform there. He has done numerous performances in Owatonna, and now does a 30-day tour every year in the Midwest. The key stop — and the reason he comes to Minnesota — is Pierre, S.D., where Janice’s mother lives.

This year, in addition to the Twin Cities, he will perform in Pipestone, Fairmont and Fergus Falls.

“I never knew an autistic person could be so talented,” said Sehnert, who has developed a friendship with Tony and Janice, and even has ridden with them in their van while Tony is on tour. “He is just fantastic. I saw him perform at somebody’s home. She didn’t believe it. She had written a song, and she sat down and played this song at her baby grand piano. She got up, he sat down and played [the same song] note for note.”

And, according to Sehnert, he is nowhere near done adding to the list of things he has learned how to do.

“When he learns one thing, he has that drive to learn something more,” Sehnert said. “He got to pilot a pontoon [boat] and he wants someday to be able to drive a car. He’s got the thirst to try anything. A lot of people don’t have that.”

Sehnert is convinced that faith drives both Tony and his mother. Janice converted to Catholicism in 1990 and has a devotion to the Blessed Mother. Along with Tony, who sings in his church choir and is a member of the Knights of Columbus, she prays the rosary every day. She knows the hand of God has touched her son.

Tony knows it, too. Driven by new, outgoing nature that he has worked hard to develop, he burst into a song written by a friend when asked to talk about the importance of God in his life.

This time, he did not try to imitate some of the great vocalists of the 20th century, like Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, as is his custom. Rather, he uttered these words using his own vocal signature:

“People great and small, God created us one and all. The beauty of the earth resounds with every awakening sound.

Thank God for life, thank God for life, thank God, thank God for life.”

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