Robert Mulhern


Autism-sufferer Martin's window to the world through song

Martin Finn, 22, has autism, but speaks to the world by singing note-perfectly in clubs and pubs, says Robert Mulhern

Autism-sufferer Martin's window to the world through song

MARTIN FINN always goes to Benidorm on his holidays, always in June, and via the same route to the airport. He stays in the same hotel

Martin’s life is rigid routine. He is autistic. He cannot speak full sentences.

When his parents, John and Norma, bring him on holidays, they push Martin in a wheelchair, otherwise he would walk on his toes.

Martin is 22. So, here they are in Benidorm, listening to the professional singer. She has a routine, too, and as the days pass, songs from her set repeat.

Martin is listening; processing what we label ‘beat’ and ‘rhythm’. He signals that he wants to perform and he is given the microphone. The music starts and Martin sings. His voice breaks free from his body. It’s full, melodic, clear.

He is no longer rocking, but fixed by the music. Martin doesn’t have a command of the English language, but he is singing songs he first heard a couple of days ago, in Spanish. He’s hitting the same notes, keeping the same timing, mimicking the Spanish lady.

Today, John Finn, from Clare, is inside Atherton train station, waiting for the train from Wigan Walpole. He smiles. “Sure didn’t you travel a bit of a journey to come and see us,” he says.

Atherton has been home to John since the 1970s. “Came for a wedding, never went back,” he says of arriving here from his home town of Lisdoonvarna. Every weekend, the Finns’ car pulls up outside locals clubs and dance halls and their son, Martin, performs to a standard that leaves people in disbelief.

“When you rate his disability against his ability, the margin of difference is so great,” says John. “Well, he’s one in a million, really. We don’t know how he does it, to be honest with you, but the music has meaning for him.

“You know, if Martin was in the car here, now, and we pulled in, I couldn’t turn off the radio. Not if there was a song on, not until it was over. He has that much respect for the singer and the music — and he wouldn’t understand why you would turn off a song in the middle. He could go into a panic.”

Their housing estate in Atherton is a sweep of red-brick houses, one and two stories, packed neatly together. Norma greets John at the door. “How was your journey?” she asks.

“Come on through and meet Martin,” says John. Chart music is beating out from the living room. The flatscreen is a shift-changing montage of dancing bodies backed by an upbeat melody. Martin is sat on the couch, legs crossed, eyes fixed on the television, his upper body rocking rhythmically back and forth.

On the floor, rows of CDs are stacked domino-like: CDs by Seamus Moore, Daniel O’Donnell, Robbie Williams…the soundtrack to Martin’s world.

“It’s all routine,” says John. “You try and link everything into the music. Martin wouldn’t understand why he would have to have a shower, for example. It doesn’t make sense to him. But we have to tell him that he is singing at such-and-such a place tonight and that is why he has to have a shower. That’s the only way it works.”

Martin’s ability is uncanny. “If Martin likes a song and he has listened to it a few times, he can sing on top of the artist. His timing is so perfect, not just for every verse, but for every word. If Martin listens to a CD and the singer breaks from a song to speak to the audience, Martin will have that in there as well. People will be looking at each other, wondering ‘where did that bit come from’. But, to him, it is part of the whole performance.

“We have done studio stuff, where we have been in and out in half an hour. If Martin delivers a song, then it’s as good the first time as it is ever going to be, because he will do it the exact same way every time, ever after.”

For years, John and Norma wondered if Martin could read. He would sit staring at CD sleeves. Then, on a return journey to Ireland, Martin became agitated in the back of the car. He was pointing at signage and they deduced, from the location, that it must be connected to a recording studio — a name buried on the back page of one of those CD sleeves on the floor at home in Atherton. “We never knew he was taking it all in, because he is non-verbal. But all that time he was.

“Now, when we go back to Ireland, if Martin spots something, he’ll point and signal and we’ll call into the studio. You know, for Martin it’s a very complicated world, but there is sense in the music.”

It’s complicated for all the family. John is 64 and Norma is 67. He has a sister, Marie, who is 46. “We just can’t afford to get ill,” says John. “Martin would have to go into care. He wouldn’t understand why one of us is missing. It’s frightening. We have had to wind back the clocks ourselves. Martin is a young man now, so when it comes to nine o’clock on a Saturday, he wants out. Every Saturday and Sunday is a must for us. Parents half our age would struggle. But the authorities are not linking in with us. For any future to be planned, you have to put it to them that you are failing at home, but saying that could lead to a knock at the house and someone telling you they have come to take him away from you.

“They wouldn’t have the right experience to handle Martin and would end up having to sedate him.

“If he could produce a CD, or something, that the music would help him when we are not around. He is headlining gigs here, he has starred on BBC3’s Autistic Superstars.”

From the living room, the sound of Martin’s voice lifts — a thread of words sung in the style of James Blunt.

‘You’re beautiful….’ raises from the room.

John looks.

“You know, if someone told me they have a son or daughter at home with autism that can go from an extreme of disability to ability, I’d say to myself: ‘I’d like to meet that guy. Cos that’s a special kind of person’,” John says.

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