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Famed Conductor and His Wife Used Music to Reach Son With Autism

To call Jaap van Zweden’s musical career distinguished would be an understatement. With twenty years experience as first violinist of the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, van Zweden has also served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world.

Apart from his work as a musician, van Zweden (along with his wife Aaltje) occupies an even more important role as the father of his third child, Benjamin, a 29-year-old with autism.

In an interview this month with CBS News, the van Zweden’s described the challenges Benjamin faced as a child, such as being uncommunicative and trapped in repetitive behaviors, such as opening and closing gates with remote controls and rocking back and forth in a chair. The van Zweden’s said Benjamin’s problems were so severe that doctors recommended he be institutionalized.

Then, a remarkable breakthrough was made by tapping into the subject Jaap van Zweden knows best: music.

“We would always sing for him children’s songs,” Jaap told CBS, “and by accident we forgot one word and he got all excited. And we thought ‘oh maybe he’s understanding actually what we are saying.”

The van Zweden’s began leaving more words out of their songs, telling Benjamin they would only complete the songs if he said the missing words. Thanks to these efforts, Benjamin now speaks not only his native Dutch, but some English as well.

Hoping to help not only their own son, but other young adults with autism as well, the van Zweden’s founded The Papageno Foundation. Named for a character in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” the Papageno Foundation was founded by the van Zweden’s in 1997, and provides arts and music therapy projects for children and young adults with autism. In 2016, the van Zweden’s created the Papageno House, which offers a permanent living space for up to 12 children and young adults with autism, including its first tenant, Benjamin himself. Along with art and music classes, the Papageno House features a culinary school, where students learn the basics of cooking and baking. After a period of training, students are provided a certificate allowing them to join the workforce. This includes a functioning restaurant at the Papageno House itself, which is open to the public and is partly staffed by the culinary students and residents.

“What we actually wanted was not a house– which was a gated house,” Jaap van Zweden said, “but we wanted to have a house for special children but in the middle of society, so they feel part of society.”


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