Ronan Keating’s smash hit "When You Say Nothing At All" has sold millions of copies worldwide and been performed by artists across the globe.
But when one handsome young man from Manchester in England walks on to a stage and sings the poignant lyrics, the words resonate with his audience in the most heart-rending of ways.
Martin Finn is so severely autistic that he has never spoken a full sentence. Aged 23, he says single words and can string no more than three together at a time. Neither does he understand the meaning of the most basic of words.
Yet Martin has been able to break out of his silent and solitary world through a unique and ironic gift – his voice.
The man whose spoken vocabulary is limited to just a dozen words has a beautiful singing voice, and with the love of his devoted parents and support of a teacher, Martin has somehow tapped into this talent. He now sings up to 60 songs at a time when he performs across the country at concerts.
Not only can he sing pop and country songs pitch perfect, he is able to mimic many of the artists he performs such as James Blunt, Ronan Keating, rock group The Killers, soul artist Gnarls Barkley and Australian band Temper Trap. Amazingly, he also sings in French and Spanish, and when he performs songs by his favorite Irish country artists, he does them with an Irish lilt.
Proud parents John and Norma Finn devote their lives to their only son. `Martin is special needs but he is just special to us,’ says Norma, 66.
Retired builder John, 64, who is from Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare and has family in Canton, CT adds: “We are so proud of him. The gap between his disability and his ability makes him one in a million – but that’s how we’ve always seen him.
“One of his favorite songs is Ronan’s 'When You say Nothing At All' – ironic for our son who can say nothing at all. You can ask Martin if his name is James and he will just say yes, then if you ask if his name is Martin he will say yes again.
“He says ‘Dad’ sometimes and ‘Mum’ now and then but he will always be a toddler trapped in a man’s body. He can do nothing for himself but music is his life and it has given him a life.”
Martin was three when doctors diagnosed him as autistic. “He was slow to develop, not speaking and walking on his tip toes all the time – something he still does. He’d sing then but nowhere near as much as he does now,” says Norma. He went to a local special needs school until 14, when he transferred to Landgate School in Wigan, specifically for autistic children, where his talent was spotted.
Teacher Calvin Wallace heard Martin singing and brought in a karaoke machine – it unleashed a voice in the dark-haired pupil.
Gradually, Martin began to learn more and more songs. “He listens to a lyric about five or six times, then he can sing it perfectly. When he mimics some singers, he sounds so like them. The only music he can’t cope with is opera and we think the high notes distress him,” explains John.
As his love of music grew, Martin began studying books on the subject. “We don’t know how he learnt to read – he has never read a children’s book and cannot read out loud but somehow, he reads or recognizes the words in books, CD covers and lyric sheets.
“He uses an iPad, again he has taught himself, and the other day was searching for a Mexican artist he likes. We went on holiday to Spain last year and was in a bar listening to a famous Spanish singer perform. We went there a few nights then one night she handed Martin the microphone and he sang in fluent Spanish the song 'Granada,' one of the ones she’d been performing.
“It is a miracle how his brain works. One large area does not work at all, yet he has this corner of his mind that works beautifully,” says John.
The Finns have spent hundreds of pounds on over 1,000 CDs, DVDs and videos for Martin to enjoy. One corner of the lounge in their pin-neat semi-detached home at Atherton is filled with shelves and lines of discs.
The couple have had an extension built for Martin so he can sing and watch music channels. “He studies the covers and knows exactly where a certain artist’s CD will be among all the rows of them,” says Norma.
As word spread of Martin’s unique talent, he was asked to perform at events and weddings across the country, raising thousands of pounds for good causes. “He can happily sing in front of a thousand people and we take him every weekend to clubs and venues – he sings for charity or pleasure.”
But Martin’s several autism means the couple have to make assiduous plans and stick to set routines to prepare him for a night out.
“I write down what is happening, read it to him and he nods to show he understands. I did that when you were coming and I also wrote down what songs we wanted him to sing. But we can only give him a few minutes’ notice or he starts to get agitated,” explains Norma.
From saying occasional words, Martin’s world opened up as he absorbed increasing numbers of songs: “He looks forward to going out and now picks up the local paper and goes straight to the club news to see who is performing.
“When he’s not singing he rocks his body to and fro just about all the time, but when he gets the microphone in his hand, it calms him down.`
It is thought that Martin might be considered an autistic savant – a person with a mental disability such as autism who also has a unique gift or brilliance in art, maths or music. Hollywood actor Dustin Hoffman played autistic savant Kim Peek in the film “Rain Man.” Kim is severely brain damaged but has read 12,000 books and remembers their content. He can read two pages at once – his left eye reads the left page, and his right eye reads the right page, taking him about 3 seconds to do both.
Martin took part in BBC 3’s "Autistic Superstars" and now his aging parents, who also have a daughter Marie Gungor, 46, are looking to Martin’s years ahead. “We have to do everything for him. Norma has to cut up his food in small pieces or he can’t feed himself. I have to get in the shower with him every day to wash him head to toe then brush his teeth, and then dress him,” says John.
“He is our son and we are happy to do that because we love him to bits but there will come a day when we can no longer do it or won’t be here and we want to secure Martin’s future.”
The couple are appealing for the music industry to help Martin make a CD of his work and a DVD to highlight life as an autistic person.
“Music is Martin’s life; it gives him a purpose and happiness. It would give us peace of mind if we knew he would go on singing after we have gone. We can’t afford it, but we believe if Martin makes a CD or DVD, it will open doors for him so he won’t be left to languish in a center and labeled autistic Martin Finn, he will be known as Martin Finn, the man with the amazing voice,” says Norma.
“We daren’t get ill or be away from him as it would distress him too much. For now, we are OK but we have to look ahead. A DVD or CD would show Martin’s life in music – how, in the beat of a note, he can go from extreme disability to the finest ability.
“He deserves his voice to be given a platform on so many levels. He deserves to be given the opportunity.”
Kevin Healey, Autism Ambassador for the UK, has seen Martin perform: “Martin is a remarkable, talented and gifted man. I watched him sing, and if you closed your eyes he really sounded like the famous singer he was [imitating].
“His talent is quite rare. I have not met anyone who is non-verbal who can read music, sing pitch perfect or mimic the group or solo artist.”
Martin went to Donegal in early December to record a new album of country and Irish songs. It is set to be released in January. It is titled, 'One in a Million' – something that can easily be said about the brave young man whose talents make him far more than that.
*To follow Martin, check out his Facebook page or visit Sheron Boyle's Facebook. To read Sheron's most recent story for IrishCentral, about her grandmother who had a ticket for the Titanic, click here.