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West Michigan piano tuner shows autism diagnosis is 'just a detour, not a stop sign'

Tuning By Tony
Tony Rodriguez plays piano
Posted at 7:15 AM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 08:17:22-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It has been over three decades since Tony Rodriguez, owner of Tuning by Tony, has taken piano lessons.

So when I asked him to play something for me, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue from memory, and flawless might I add, was not what I expected.

It took me about four seconds to learn that Tony’s ear is unmatched, as is his passion for pianos.

“I was taking piano lessons with my piano teacher and I was more interested in how the inside worked rather than playing it,” Tony said. “I was 10 years old at the time."

Fast forward a year, and armed with a tuning tool, Tony was in his element.

“I started getting into the business of tuning other people's pianos, not professionally, but best I could based on my practice,” Tony said.

Tony finds solace working on a Steinway, or any piano for that manner. It’s a career that allows him to utilize his gift, but with limited social interaction. That is something others with Autism often seek.

Before pursuing a career repairing and tuning, Tony tried out a variety of jobs working at restaurants, car washes, and maintenance jobs, but nothing sparked his interest.

“I'm doing the same thing over and over again, and it's like, I'm not learning anything new,” Tony recalls.

It’s a common struggle many with Autism deal with. More than 70 percent of adults with autism are either unemployed or underemployed, meaning the job they have isn’t utilizing their strengths. That was the case with Tony. Other times, people can’t keep a job because they are misunderstood.

“People are not always direct and I need that directness, to tell me what I should be doing, '' Tony said. “And I just would get accused of not doing these things, but nobody told me what those things are.”

Colleen Allen, President and CEO of Autism Alliance of Michigan says it comes down to the preparation of the candidate, what environment they can expect, social cues, do’s and don'ts of the workplace, and then preparing employers, educating them to better understand what an adult with Autism is experiencing.

“And then the matching of skill and interest,” Allen added. “And when those things are done, you're gonna get a retention rate somewhere near 95%, which is what we find almost 95% retention, when it's done, right. “

That’s where the Autism Alliance comes in. The agency works with adults with Autism to find their skillset, what their interests are, and what weaknesses they may have and then navigate a career path that makes sense based on their evaluation. That process and support is crucial according to Allen in helping an adult with Autism find and keep a successful career and ultimately live a fuller life.

Tony’s dad worked many hours with him to come up with a plan to pursue a proper career, and that brought him back to his childhood love of playing and perfecting the sound of pianos.

Today Tony has more than 300 clients and over 40 five-star ratings- something he takes pride in. He’s showing no signs of stopping.

“There are only detours, no stop signs,” Tony said.

Tony says he’s looking to expand his clients to include a lot more higher-end pianos.

To learn more about the Autism Alliance of Michigan head to Autism Alliance of Michigan - Help. Hope. Answers. Today.