MARTIN Finn’s life is one of rigid routine. He goes to Benidorm on his holidays. It’s always Benidorm. The month is always June. The hotel is always the same, as is the route to the airport.
The reason why? Martin is autistic.
His condition is so severe that he cannot speak in full sentences.
When his parents John and Norma bring him on holidays they find it easier to manage if he is in a wheelchair because Martin’s wont has long been to walk around on his toes.
Their boy is 22 years old.
So, here they are in Spain, in Benidorm, and a professional singer is doing her thing, performing in the hotel bar. She has a routine too and as the days pass songs from her set start to repeat.
Martin Finn is listening, rocking back and forth, processing things we label beat and rhythm — only these are descriptions that mean nothing to him.
Then Martin signals that he wants to perform. And after a few moments he is given the microphone.
Those watching wonder whether the gesture is a kind indulgence.
Then the music starts and Martin Finn begins to sing. His voice breaks free from his body. It’s full, melodic, clear.
This young man is no longer rocking but fixed by the music and its delivery.
Martin doesn’t have a command of the English language but there he is, singing songs he never heard until a couple of days ago. In Spanish! He’s hitting the same notes, keeping the same timing, verbalising the words in a mimic of the Spanish lady.
Now, the fix of everyone’s focus is on Martin Finn… the singer.
John Finn is stood inside the concourse of Atherton train station waiting for the service to arrive from Wigan Walpole. The wind howls up the steps from the platform, beating the door closed before gasping up gusts to wrench it open again.
Rain drives across the platform — sideways. John breaks a smile, his handshake is warm: ‘Sure didn’t you travel a bit of a journey to come and see us’ it suggests.
“The car is down here,” he says.
Atherton has changed a lot but it’s been home to John Finn since the 1950s. He didn’t think life’s journey would bring him from his home town of Lisdoonvarna in Co. Clare, where he jammed drums in a band one time, to a place pitched dead in the middle between Wigan and Bolton.
“Came for a wedding, never went back,” he says. “Used to be a big mining area one time. Not anymore. When I think of all the pubs there used to be. They’d be full in the evenings with the men coming from the pits. People don’t use the pubs so much now.”
John and his wife Norma — who’s from Stockport — are firm fixtures on the local social scene.
Every weekend their car pulls up outside clubs and dancehalls where their son Martin performs to a standard that leaves people shaking their heads 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,” he adds.
“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. You dare not. The same for a CD. 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.”
The housing estate in Atherton is a sweep of red brick houses, one and two storeys, packed neatly together. Friendly by nature, the Finn’s know their neighbours, but not well enough for them to understand the extent of their son’s disability.
“They just wouldn’t have a sense of what autism is,” John says. “It’s a shame in a way because we’ve lived here a long time but they just wouldn’t know. It’s not like that community wise.”
Norma greets her husband at the door.
“How was your journey?” she asks.
“Come on through and meet Martin,” adds John.
Chart music is beating out from the living room. The flat screen is a shift-changing montage of dancing bodies backed by an upbeat melody. Martin Finn is sat on the couch, legs crossed, eyes fixed on the television, his upper body rocking rhythmically back and forth.
On the floor beneath the TV, rows of CDs stacked domino-like dominate the floor space — Seamus Moore, Daniel O’Donnell, Robbie Williams… the soundtrack of his 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. 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.”
He adds: “Brushing his teeth — sure Martin couldn’t see why someone would want to stick a brush in his mouth. He would be like, ‘what is this all about’. The only way we can get things like that done is for me to distract him, talk about things that are coming up for him, tell him, ‘Martin will be performing in this club tonight. Martin will be meeting that person’, and so on and that will distract him enough so Norma can clean his teeth. Even his food. We have to cut up his toast into squares for him to eat. You couldn’t give Martin a full Mars Bar, he would try and eat the whole thing in one go and it could choke him.
“It’s really trying to manage him, to be organised and to be able to fix things if they go wrong. I mean if that telly broke there for some reason and he was listening to his music, we have another telly in the back room that we could switch on straight away. If there was a power cut or something, that would be a major thing. Martin wouldn’t understand why something isn’t working. To him, in his world, it wouldn’t make sense. It wouldn’t be a big deal for you and me but it would be a major deal for him, so you have to be there to fix it and nine out of 10 times we do. If we couldn’t then it would send him into a panic.”
John Finn was once asked where he gets his backing tracks… ‘you know, the ones Martin sings over?’
“You see we don’t always need them,” he smiles. “If Martin likes a song and he has listened to it a few times, he can sing over of the artist. You know what I mean?
“His timing is so perfect, not just for every verse but for every word. When Martin is singing another artist’s song, his timing is to the millisecond. He is right on it. You think of karaoke where people get their cue from the screen but even then it is extremely difficult to sing on top of someone, to have the timing exactly right. Impossible really.”
He adds: “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. He could be performing a song and next thing he will throw this bit of chat into it 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.
“The thing is if there is a wrong bit in the song, then Martin will sing that wrong bit for ever more. You wouldn’t be able to get inside his head to correct that bit because he is replicating what he has listened to.
“Everything he has learned has come from himself. We have done studio stuff where we have been in and out in half an hour. There are no retakes. 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 after, the same timing, same pitch, everything. You’d go in and do 10 songs — three minutes each — one after the other and out again. You wouldn’t even need to write down what songs he is doing. As soon as he hears the music, he knows what words are associated with that piece of music and he will come in right on top of the singer.”
The Finns were blessed when a teacher who specialises in autism came into their lives. By John’s own admission, he and Norma were struggling, then this guy came to their home and started to break down their ability to deal with Martin’s disability.
“We were trying to talk to Martin but our sentences were too long,” says John. “He told is to use single words and short sentences. ‘Is Martin feeling ok? Yes? No? Sit. Stand.’ That type of thing. He invited us to sit in on some of the classes at school and we learned an awful lot... an awful lot.”
For years John and Norma wondered if Martin could read. He would sit on the floor of the living room staring at CD sleeves. Then one time, on a return journey to Ireland, Martin became agitated in the back of the car. They couldn’t understand what was wrong, but he was pointing at signage and they deduced from the location that it was connected to a recording studio — a name buried on the back page of one of those CD sleeves back on the floor in Wigan. It had been read and logged in Martin’s mind… forever.
“We never knew he was taking it all in, because he is non-verbal. But all that time he was,” John says. “Now when we go back to Ireland, we’ll take a detour. If Martin spots something, he’ll point and signal and we’ll call into the studio. We’ve been invited into places and Martin has just sat down the middle of the floor and gone through a book of music about the place.
“You say to the guy, ‘he’ll give it back to you when he is finished’. You wouldn’t get it off him. He would hold onto it so tight that it would end up being torn to bits. But when he is finished looking through it, he will just hand it back.”
In what is almost a contradiction of communication, the written word is the word of rule in the Finn house. Despite being non-verbal, Martin is fed a daily diet of short concise notes that always begin with his name.
“If Martin was down to perform somewhere at nine, we would write that down for him,” says John. “But if something went wrong or there was a delay, then we would have to put a cross though the 9 and write 9.15 below it. He just wouldn’t understand why something would change. It wouldn’t make sense to him. But when we write it down and show it to him then it’s OK.”
MARTIN once sung at the wedding of one of his teachers. Those in attendance were so taken by the standard of his performance that they clubbed together and paid for studio time. He has performed his own show in Manchester — not top of the bill, the only bill. A couple of years back he starred in a BBC3 production called Autistic Superstars, singing Yellow by Coldplay and You’re Beautiful by James Blunt. It’s on YouTube. The hits are in the thousands and it was a performance that piqued interest in this amazing story.
“If it was in front of four people or a million people it would still be the same performance,” says John. “When the music starts he associates the words with that music and that’s it. That’s the process. He’ll walk up on stage like a boxer.
“Last night, I rigged up the room here, put a few of the spotlights on and wrote a list of songs down — 22 of them, nothing but a five-second break between each one. He banged them out one after the other. I was sat here and between each one I’d clap and tell him well done Martin. Then onto the next one.
“You know for Martin it’s a very complicated world but there is sense in the music.”
The world is not just complicated for Martin.
John is 64, Norma is 67. Martin also has a sister Marie who is 46.
But thoughts of the future are as unsettling as they are uncertain.
“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. If we get ill today, where is Martin going to go?”
John tells stories of being approached in the streets by parents of autistic children. “They see Martin and they know from their own children that he is autistic. I ask them how their son or daughter is getting on and some of them say they had to put them into care to get on with their own lives.
“But with Martin we know what buttons to press. Still, we are fighting a real battle. It’s frightening. It is a struggle. 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 night, it’s a must for us. Parents half our age would struggle. But the authorities are not linking in with us. We asked for our future to be planned, but for any future 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.”
John adds: “They wouldn’t have the right experience to handle Martin and would end up having to sedate him. When we are not around it would be easy to say ‘we’ll just double up on his medication’. But if someone could link in with the music and build around that… if Martin could produce a CD or something then the music would help him when we are not around.”
From the living room the sound of Martin’s voice lifts and leaks through the open door — a thread of words sung in the style of James Blunt.
‘YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL…’ raises from the room.
“You know if someone approached me and 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,” he says.