A high-tech, retro-sound hobby becomes a community centered on autism

Standing behind a lectern at a Denton bar, Gustuf Young started his set. His Instagram video shows him leaning over his equipment, rigid, as the electronic bass escalates. Then, he falls back, arms up, and the beat explodes.

If the song sounded like a ‘90s Sega game as performed by Daft Punk, it was no accident. Like the other performers that night, Young was playing chiptunes, a style of electronic music created using the sounds from the computer chips of old video games and other hardware.

Young, 34, was performing for Chiptunes 4 Autism, an organization he founded last summer to use electronic music to raise money for several autism charities. Since then, the organization has released two collaborative albums online, held two live shows, and seen its Facebook community page grow to include almost 300 members. Their goal: Remove the stigma from the public’s perception of autism and offer support for those who live with it.

“We want those opportunities to be out there for people and we really want to de-stigmatize things,” said the Sansom Park resident. “That’s where our theme of empowerment comes in. We want people on the spectrum to feel empowered, to be proud of themselves, to feel like they have the resources they need to live a full and fulfilling life.”

About the music

Chiptunes as a music style has roots in the late 1970s and ’80s, first arriving as the soundtracks to arcade games. As Kentucky musician Ricky Case says, it’s an art of bleeps and bloops. Some of the older systems had a specific computer chip just for music, and fans soon began to program and mix the sound to create new music, says Aaron Hickman, a chiptunes musician and Chiptunes 4 Autism collaborator. As technology developed, so did the process, and artists began creating the music on new computer systems and handheld video game devices.

The style is re-inventive, even to its musicians. Most perform and post their music under psychedelic stage names. On stage, Young is Asperkraken, Case is ATKStat, Hickman is Dya, and fellow artists Brian Follick and Michael Blanton are Gnarcade and Metroyd Myk, respectively.

Musicians say the style is flexible by nature. The music can be created and played on laptops, Little Sound DJs, Game Boys, and a host of other hardware. Chiptunes = WIN, one of the largest online chiptunes communities, explains that it can be restricted to retro hardware, newer systems that emulate the older sound, or partnered with other instruments and tools. Artists can mix the sounds to fit any genre, from rock to pop to country.

To Case, who played at the Denton show, the style’s mutability is liberating.

“That’s the great thing about chiptunes is that it’s so open to do whatever you want with it,” Case said. “I play a lot of live instrument music, and I always feel really constrained in what styles I can play around with and what thing I can do with my voice and my instrument. And with chiptunes, I feel none of that.”

The style’s connection to free expression was one of the reasons Young chose chiptunes to be the basis for a cause he cares so much about.

Roots of a cause

Autism — recognized as a range of conditions involving social skills, speech and behavior that affects those who have it differently — has been part of Young’s life from the beginning. His sister was diagnosed when they were young and fell on the nonverbal side of the spectrum. Young says that when she was growing up, she was often teased by students at their school, and that his other sister would stand up to her bullies. Young’s son has also been diagnosed as autistic. Young sees autistic traits in other family members and even himself, though he has not been officially diagnosed.

Young’s connection to autism has gone beyond his family, as well. Two years ago, while working at GameStop, he began talking with a man taking care of his grandson, who was autistic and nonverbal. The two would talk about their children often, Young telling him what tactics had worked best in their family. When the man transferred his son to a private school, he told Young, the child began talking.

With the man, Young was able to build a relationship through discussion about autism and video games, and then make a difference. The experience was one of the catalysts that spurred him to create Chiptunes 4 Autism.

“That made my heart grow about 10 sizes bigger that day,” Young said. “That culmination of events burst over time, and I realized you could use video games and video game music to do some good in the world.”

Since its inception, Young said, Chiptunes 4 Autism has raised a small amount of money — about $600 — for charities like the nonPareil Institute, Anxiety Gaming, the Autism Society of America, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. But it has also established a community of people who love chiptunes and care about autism.

Linked by the music

The group’s community page is a blend of feedback for songs, articles, videos, quotes and stories about autism. Each album that contributors collaborated on is themed — the first volume focusing on autism awareness, the second on empowerment. Through them, artists have each brought their own experiences to the group and their music.

Tulsa musician Michael Blanton was at a music festival when he read Young’s online call to artists to help with the first collaborative album and was eager to help charities he supported. Lying in a one-man tent and wielding a Game Boy, he stayed up all night to write his submission.

As a youth, Blanton was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The diagnosis helped him find the tools and support he needed to get through school and work on communication skills. He said chiptunes helped bring him out of his shell.

“Chiptunes is probably the most welcoming music genre, just because I can show up and, for the most part, everybody’s really, really nice. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you enjoy chiptunes, you’re set,” Blanton said.

Brian Follick, a Minnesotan Chiptunes 4 Autism artist and doctoral psychology student, said Chiptunes 4 Autism and the wider chiptunes community reminded him of the positive camaraderie of the punk scenes he joined as a teenager. As a neurotypical person, he says, the conversations and perspectives autistic members shared online helped him better understand their worldview.

Brandon Hood, founder of the blog and forum Chiptunes = WIN, and his wife and collaborator, Erin Hood, have championed mental health advocacy among chiptunes enthusiasts. Brandon Hood, who has dealt with his own anxiety disorder for years, has even taken direct action with his Facebook group “It’s Still You,” where members can share personal experiences, offer support, and work to de-stigmatize mental illnesses.

Artists and fans had several theories as to why neuro-divergent fans came to chiptunes. Young said video games and video game music may be the only way some autistic people can interact with others. Others said the freedom of the computerized music could better help people express themselves, or lend itself to logical thinking. To Erin Hood, the correlation might be born of the community itself.

“Sometimes I wonder if there are more people that are neuro-divergent in chiptunes, or if the chiptunes community forms itself in a way that people are more comfortable talking about their neuro-divergencies there,” she says.

— — —

Chiptunes 4 Autism’s albums are available on Bandcamp , Spotify and iTunes. For more information, see the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/chiptunes4autism.

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