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Boy with Asperger's syndrome focuses on restoring instruments

While shopping at a Solway antique store just over a year ago, Billy Taylor eyed a parlor organ more than a century old. The pedal-powered instrument sparked an interest in the Bemidji teenager, who decided to take it home and fix it up.

Through focused research, Billy began restoring the late 1800s Western Cottage parlor organ -- and building up an expertise that is catching the attention of professionals in the organ business.

Billy, who was drawn to organs a few years ago by the complexity of their music, now has three parlor organs that he has restored or is restoring.

"I just enjoy it," he said, noting that all three are from the late 1800s or early 1900s.

His mother, Michelle Carlson, said the 15-year-old has researched parlor organs extensively for his projects, including calling professionals who work with organs.

"He needs to know all the ins and outs," Michelle said.

Billy's intense interest in the subject and drive for details is reflective of Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that he was diagnosed with in the sixth grade. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the most distinguishing trait of Asperger's syndrome is an absorbed interest in a single object or topic.

"There's a perfectionist side to his autism," Michelle said.

She also said Asperger's syndrome is a social form of autism. She said Billy, who is a sophomore at Voyageurs Expeditionary High School, is emerging socially through his organ projects as he talks with professionals in the business.

"It really kind of is forcing him to take some steps that he wouldn't normally do," Michelle said.

Billy found a man in California who repairs and restores organs. He has talked with him on the telephone and the man has given him some tips.

"He's been helpful any time Billy's called," Michelle said.

He also called a Pennsylvania company that specializes in building pipe organs and spoke with a man there who appeared on Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." A segment on the TV show highlighted the process of cleaning and tuning pipe organs. Impressed by Billy's knowledge and work, the man told him to consider interning with the company in a few years.

Also, Billy has connected with Dale Goodyear of Bemidji, who has helped him find some missing parts for the organs. For parts he can't track down, Billy researches what they look like and builds them himself.

"He doesn't have woodworking tools," Michelle said. "What he's done is carved by hand, cut by hand."

Billy said restoring organs is relaxing. And by fixing them, he's preserving a part of history.

"I like fixing something old to work like it's new," he said. "Things that are old should be kept working because they're pieces of history."

Billy said organs like the ones he restores most likely would have been found in homes in the 1800s.

"It would have been the home entertainment system of the day," he said.

Billy also enjoys playing the organs and is writing a song titled "The Old Parlor Organ."

"I played it before I wrote it," he said.

Billy plays mostly by ear, powering a parlor organ's 250-plus moving parts by pumping two pedals with both feet.

"That's kind of the draw for him," Michelle said. "It's old. It's not electric."

With some extra parts he received when he was given one of the organs, Billy hopes to rebuild a fourth organ.

He is also sketching a design of a pipe organ that he wants to build someday.

And, he plans to continue restoring parlor organs.

"It's fun to do," he said.