The Lassiter High School junior and member of the marching band was diagnosed with autism when she was about 2 years old.
Her mother, Karen Carstens, said while her daughter is on the high-functioning end of the condition’s spectrum, there were still things she once wasn’t able to do.
For instance, Taylor formerly had to sleep with a white noise machine because she was scared of unexpected, loud sounds.
The family even had to bring the machine on vacations and camping trips.
“The level of anxiety that came because of that fear was so intense for her that we would travel with this sound machine,” Karen Carstens said. “And she wouldn’t sleep without it.”
Her mother said Taylor would also use words in an atypical way or simply repeat words or phrases she had heard in order to communicate.
“It’s called echolalia, and what that means is that instead of using language constructively, they repeat the words,” Karen Carstens said. “So, for example, when she was little, I would say, ‘Taylor, do you want a drink of water?’ And then, I would give her the drink. So, when she was thirsty, she would say to me, ‘Taylor, do you want a drink of water?’ because she associated that clump of words with getting a drink without understanding.”
Because of her condition, Taylor needed special attention in school. After her diagnosis, Taylor was enrolled in a special needs pre-kindergarten program in Orlando, which her parents say helped her learn language and how to communicate.
“I cannot say enough good things about early intervention,” Taylor’s father, Scott Carstens, said.
The Carstens moved to Cobb County in 2005. Taylor said she was initially scared of the move.
“And then Mom said it’d be a new adventure,” Taylor said. “And then we moved here. I really liked the neighborhood a lot.”
Taylor was given an individualized education plan in elementary school, which is created for students with special needs to inform teachers about what the student needs help with to be successful, Karen Carstens said.
“When she started school, she had a lot of goals,” she said. “There were lots of things we were working on, in all areas and all subjects and behavior and social and speech. And she had occupational therapy for hand strength and all those kinds of things.”
Taylor’s life changed in fourth grade, however, when she started playing the recorder while enrolled at Shallowford Falls Elementary School. She found she had a natural talent for music and never looked back.
Taylor said it’s hard to explain why she was drawn to music. She said she has fun playing songs and it can be really exciting, but most of all, “it really helps me communicate in something beyond language.”
Her mom, who is an assistant principal at Sope Creek Elementary, said Taylor no longer needs speech therapy or occupational therapy and credits her daughter’s involvement in music for her progress.
“I mean, she’s done a remarkable job through school with the support that she’s had. But the reason we think it is, is because of the music, right?” Karen Carstens asked her daughter.
“Yeah, I don’t know where I would be without music and band,” Taylor replied.
Taylor said she has dreamed of playing in a marching band since she was a little girl. Her parents used to take her to Florida State University football games, she said, and she loved watching the halftime shows put on by the school’s band.
“It looked really exciting. I really wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
Today, Taylor, 16, plays clarinet in the Marching Trojan Band at Lassiter. She made it to the state level of auditions for the Governor’s Honors Program, a four-week summer program for gifted students. Additionally, she will perform with the Georgia Youth Symphony Orchestra in October, an honor she received after several rounds of auditions.
Taylor also marched with the Lassiter band in the 2013 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.
Karen Carstens said she grew up watching the Rose Parade and seeing her daughter marching in it was a special experience.
“To be out there, and see her go down, it’s almost like a miracle,” she said. “You think about where we started, and then there she goes. It’s exciting.”
Taylor said she falls asleep listening to classical music now.
Leslie Miller, Taylor’s case manager at Lassiter, said being in the band has made Taylor more comfortable with herself, which is the key for students with autism.
“I think once they can get comfortable with certain individuals and their surroundings, then they’re going to blossom,” Miller said.
Scott Carstens, who works in IT with the Oracle Corporation, said Taylor’s experience in the Lassiter Marching Band has helped her learn a valuable life lesson.
“It sort of helps deliver the message that if you work hard for something and put in the time, it’s amazing what you can achieve,” Scott Carstens, who also volunteers as a “roadie” for the marching band, said. “And that’s the lesson a lot of parents want kids to take from any activity they participate in. So the band experience has been very good at Lassiter.”
Taylor’s condition might also be the reason she has excelled in band.
Miller said people with autism don’t think about things the way others do. She said her students with autism are driven by rules, so there needs to be a schedule and strategy in place for them to be successful.
“Everything is black and white,” she said. “There is very little gray area with students with autism. And so, you have to be very clear and very direct with what you do for them.”
Taylor said she likes the routine of the marching band — knowing the steps, when to play which notes.
“Sometimes they unexpectedly change something, but I see it as a new obstacle to learn to do. After I’m used to the change, I know where I’m supposed to go. It’s all orderly, and that’s something I like about it.”
Life in the Carstens house is certainly orderly. Taylor’s brother, Erik, 15, is also in the marching band, so the family must adhere to a rigid schedule.
Erik and Taylor have private lessons on Monday, their off day from the Lassiter Band. They have practices Tuesday through Thursday, a game Friday and practice again Saturday. Then, both Erik and Taylor have practice for the Georgia Youth Symphony.
“Somewhere in there, homework is happening,” Karen Carstens said.
Taylor said she has a 3.6 out of 4.0 grade point average.
Additionally, through her band teacher, Taylor has recently learned she has perfect pitch. When she hears a note, she can quickly identify it. Her mother said she initially didn’t believe it, but after testing her with a piano app on an iPad and seeing her daughter get every note correct, she was astounded.
“I think it’s probably related to how she perceives sound,” Scott Carstens said.
Two years ago, Taylor said she wrote a post on an autism page on Facebook telling her story and it “went viral.” The post has more than 750 likes and more than 70 comments as of Thursday. She said she hopes telling others about the difficulties she’s overcome will help people in similar situations.
Taylor’s father said her daughter has risen to the challenge.
“It’s just a diagnosis. It doesn’t tell you what you can and can’t do,” he said.