By Nils Skudra Sacred Space Blogger, Autism Advocate, Historian, Librarian, Freelance Writer
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch Tommy! The Dreams I Keep Inside Me, an
intriguing documentary about Tommy Onorato, a 60-year-old autistic man whose life-
long dream is to sing in a jazz band. This documentary was particularly compelling since it focuses on an
older autistic individual in his sixties, given that most films and documentaries about autism tend to
focus on young adults in their twenties and thirties, a period which would be considered the prime of
I felt that Tommy’s story sent an uplifting message about the determination of an autistic
individual to pursue their dreams, which can be an inspirational message for all viewers, both
When Tommy is first introduced, he is shown reflecting on his experiences growing up as a child
on the autism spectrum. He recalls that during the 1950s and 1960s, there was little understanding of
his diagnosis and that people with autism would therefore have been considered mentally retarded and
likely to be institutionalized. Viewing this documentary from a 21 st century lens, his insights are striking
since neurodiverse millennials have grown up in a period characterized by increased understanding of
the multifaceted nature of autism and its diverse range of characteristic, together with enhanced
specialized services for autistic individuals to ensure their successful integration in the community.
Tommy’s observations can therefore provide millennial viewers with a new perspective on the
challenges of growing up with autism during a time in which these services were virtually nonexistent
and opportunities for social integration were severely limited.
As the documentary progresses, it sheds light on Tommy’s daily routine. Living in a group home
in Durham, North Carolina, he regularly goes to his job at a department store, where he enjoys a good
rapport with his coworkers and brings an outgoing and friendly demeanor to his engagement with
After returning home, he enjoys listening to jazz and other popular music from the 1950s,
singing the songs of celebrities such as Frank Sinatra. He relates that his dream job is to sing in a jazz
band since he has a passionate love of jazz music, and he displays a remarkable knowledge of the history of jazz, noting its centrality to the development of modern American music. To many viewers, this goalmight seem unrealistic since Tommy is an autistic individual in his sixties, which would be considered the retirement age range in mainstream society. In addition, because of the widespread stereotypes about autistic people , it might seem unlikely that a jazz band would accept someone with Tommy’s particular tendencies, but this does not deter him from pursuing his goals.
One day, while eating in a restaurant, Tommy listens to a jazz band performing for the audience,
and he is intrigued by their expertise. He subsequently goes to the band leader and expresses his
interest in singing with the band, highlighting his vocal skills and his passion for the subject matter. The
band leader seems remarkably receptive to the idea and invites Tommy to audition for a singing role at
the band’s next session. Tommy is thrilled to have this opportunity, and he eagerly accepts the
invitation, expressing his enthusiasm to his living support specialist the next day as she takes him to the
audition. Amazingly, he delivers a successful vocal performance and is featured in the band’s
subsequent show at the restaurant, where he sings some of Frank Sinatra’s most iconic songs.
Throughout the documentary, Tommy displays a profound optimism, together with remarkable
humility and introspection about his identity as a person on the spectrum. He observes that he can only
be who he is and move forward in life, which is a compelling insight since many neurodiverse individuals
try to mask their symptoms to fit in, but there has a growing trend among the broader autistic
community to embrace their identity as a positive thing, and Tommy perfectly embodies this trend.
Furthermore, while most people would probably dismiss the idea of a 60-year-old seeking a career in a
jazz band, Tommy does not let his age or diagnosis inhibit him from pursuing his passion, and the
success that he finds as a jazz singer can serve as an inspiration for people of all ages and abilities to
achieve their academic and professional goals, with the support of family and friends.