Build it and they will come. If you’ve ever seen the film “Field of Dreams,” you’re familiar with
this line. The character Ray Kinsella builds a baseball field on his Iowa farm after hearing a
voice whisper the famous line. While the movie is fanciful and a bit goofy, I think the takeaway
is the idea of total devotion to a dream—even when others fail to understand.

Dreams don’t have past experiences. They are not data driven. They are all about what could
be. They require an unwavering belief that something can happen. We all dream of something. The perfect house, the ideal government, a life of wealth. Or maybe peace, equality and acceptance. But has your dream ever included something we consider a basic human right, like a warm place to sleep, a shower or a meal? Or maybe something less physical, like the ability to be seen as a person with dignity?

Many people with disabilities have spent their lives dreaming of simple things we consider basic human rights: dreams filled with the possibility of independent living, warm meals every night and a career where people see you as an equal. If you’ve never experienced it, I can’t really describe the feeling you get when a room full of people simply tolerate you being there out of social politeness rather than seeing you as a contributing person at the table. When you must fight to be seen or for bigger dreams like having a meaningful career that creates lasting change for generations, only to have those fade into the background.

Now there are people uniting to change all that.

I have made a few trips to Phoenix, Arizona over the past few years as a guest lecturer,
advocate and, most recently, as a featured violinist. I was originally invited to give my
perspective on music and autism. I was unsure of the motivation of sudden interest from a city I have no previous connection to, but my curiosity got the better of me. With each visit, I got to know more people and see different neighborhoods. I had the pleasure of meeting dozens of people from multiple industries such as healthcare, government, education, and the arts. In every room, I was seen as a contributing member of society who happened to have autism.

My views were heard and conversations with neurotypical people felt balanced. My experiences with autism were valued but never pitied. I was a professional and they wanted me there. At first, I was reluctant to trust it. When would the other shoe drop?

It hasn’t escaped me that the city growing dearer to me is called Phoenix. Anyone who knows
me is familiar with my relationship to the phoenix. I call the emotional, charismatic inner me
“Phoenix”—the me at my core—who is often at odds with the autistic, rule-following, logical me, whom I call Snamuh. I was also part of the class of 2010 at Agnes Scott College, with the phoenix as the class mascot. Agnes Scott is a women’s school outside Atlanta, Georgia—a city also compared to the phoenix. There is even a bronze statue in Woodruff Park called “Atlanta from the Ashes” depicting a woman being lifted from the flames by a phoenix. No matter where I go, this symbolic bird seems to appear.

While it might be assumed that I have a bias for anything phoenix, I wasn’t clever enough to
make this connection until after my most recent visit. As part of a neurodiverse art exhibition put on by First Place AZ, I composed a piece of music expressing photographer Blair Bunting’s unique process of engaging in his passion of photographing trains. This was all documented by filmmaker John Schaffer to create an incredible documentary called “Sound Tracks.” The film was shown at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, during a collaborative event that showcased Blair’s photography, my compositions and the works of autistic artist Calvin Shin.

A quartet from the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra joined me in performing for more than 150
attendees the works I had composed over the years. I improvised a song based on the crowd’s
energy before entering the auditorium for a night focused on creating a more neurodiverse
world. It was during the panel discussion that included John, Blair and me that I made the
connection with Phoenix. This was it. This was my moment to rise from the ashes and speak my truth. I was asked this question: How do you want the world to be different for decades to come thanks to your advocacy work and musical contributions?

I pulled out my little paper to read what I had written the night before. The spotlight lit the back
of the page with a warm, red glow and my inner fire started to kindle. Phoenix was here—and
she was ready to be heard. I made a little joke to soften up the crowd and then read from my paper. (Click here to read my answer.)

The crowd’s reaction was delayed. While it was only a few seconds, I feel like time was frozen and I was suspended beneath the wings of the phoenix, looking down at the audience. Then I heard it—a single “Wow!” uttered by a man shadowed by the spotlight beaming from behind him; and then the applause moved the air to pet my cheeks. I was in full flight.

As a performer, applause is how I know if I have moved the crowd. Applause is musical. It has
rhythm, tone and intensity that expresses an audience’s true feelings. I can tell the obligatory,
flat-hand applause of the polite audience from the polyrhythmic, hallowed tone of the audience
that is moved. This audience was moved.

The event ended with a song I had composed for First Place’s founder, Denise Resnik. I wanted to do more than honor her commitment to building a better world for people with disabilities and reflect her inner phoenix in melody. As the event came to a close, two members of the quartet joined me in performing my composition, “If the Wind Could Speak.” They played beautifully, expressing my notes with authenticity. They played with me as an equal, professional musician, adding depth to my musical love note.

The growing community in Phoenix has built that field of dreams. They have worked to integrate neurodiversity into every corner of society. They have plowed through the crop of systems past, throwing out the idea that communities should provide only what is immediately demanded, and replaced it with an open field where a diverse group of people can come together in the game of life. Now, at age 47, I’m finally moving from the spectator stands—and have been invited to play.