Young pianist, Ethan Olaes, performs at the Alleluia Ball at the Huntington Cleveland Convention Center in Cleveland, Ohio in 2017. (Photo by Joy Olaes Surprenant)
Saint Sebastian's School

My cousin Ethan: Finding his voice through music

The person whom I admire most is my cousin, Carmelito Ethan Olaes, whose initials spell CEO.

When Ethan was born, his parents had big dreams for him. They hoped he would have lots of friends, he would play music and sports, he would go to college, and maybe someday he would run his own company. Those dreams deflated when at nearly 2 years old, he received the diagnosis: autism. Ethan couldn’t talk. He had sensory issues. He walked on his tiptoes, and he flapped his arms. But, I’ve got the best spoiler alert for you: he learned to fly. 

Blessed with a supportive and loving family, Ethan received early intervention and made progress. He learned to talk and walk even if he developed at a slower rate. He still has trouble looking people in the eye and holding a conversation, but he keeps working at it. Through it all, here’s what we discovered: Ethan is a savant, which means that he’s a genius.

My grandmother has a jukebox with hundreds of entries, and Ethan can name every song and its corresponding number. After we watch a movie, Ethan often recites all the credits. We never get lost when we are with Ethan because he memorizes the map in minutes. When we went on a family vacation to Disney World, Ethan led the way around the park. He loves roller coasters. He puts his hands up in the air and smiles ear-to-ear.

A musical prodigy, Ethan has perfect pitch. He’s skillful with more than eight instruments, but piano is his forte. He can play the work of the greatest composers and the best rock bands by sight reading or simply listening.

At 12 years old, he began studying at the prestigious Oberlin Music Conservatory. At 16 years old, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall. Recently, he was honored as Kawai’s First Young Artist, and he’ll tour around the world.

Ethan has found a way to connect with people through his beautiful music. It flows like a river. He is the heart and inspiration of his family’s nonprofit called ETHAN, which stands for Everyone Together Help Autism Now. His own company is called Ethan88, for 88 keys on a piano. Ethan plays the piano at various charity events to raise awareness and funds for important causes. His tagline is “Let music move us.”

In October 2017, Ethan played the piano at the Alleluia Ball at the Huntington Convention Center in Cleveland, Ohio. His performance helped raise over $1 million for the “Better Together” initiative, an inclusive program adopted by 46 Catholic schools in Northeast Ohio. It provides children with special needs extra support and resources so that they can thrive in an inclusive classroom.

This diversity not only benefits the ones with learning challenges, but lifts up all the students, teachers, faculty, and community at large. It brings out the best in everyone, as we are at our finest when we are compassionate and giving. The greatest lesson we can learn is empathy, the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. We must remember that we are each other’s keepers.

After Ethan’s flawless performance, he received a standing ovation. Like most everyone in the room, I felt an overwhelming sense of admiration, gratitude, and joy.

Ethan has worked hard and overcome obstacles bigger than mountains. Many people put limitations on him; but fortunately, Ethan is surrounded by people who believe in him — his parents, family, friends, teachers, and kind strangers. It’s a shame that some people look at Ethan and turn away; they are uncomfortable around people who are different. Ethan’s standing ovation was a triumph because everyone looked past Ethan’s disability and saw his ability.

What about sports? Ethan can run a mile in 5 minutes and jump rope 250 revolutions in a minute and 26 seconds. On family bike rides, he can pedal the fastest. He races ahead, and then waits patiently for all of us to catch up. Ethan can pocket 15 pool balls in a row. I’ll never beat him in chess or cards. I joke that someday I’ll take him to the casinos with me. He doesn’t get the joke, but that’s OK. Nobody is perfect.

Now, where did you place your bet? Against the odds, Carmelito Ethan Olaes is coming out ahead of the game.

It’s not easy, but this 18-year-old CEO is showing autism who’s boss.