The Remarkable Influence of Music on Life with Autism
“Lots of people with autism have specialties,” my son James said recently, “and my specialty is music!”
James, now 15, is a born musician. His perfect pitch revealed itself before he was three, his little voice shouting out the names of notes in a restaurant where live musicians tuned their instruments, astonishing everyone in the room, including us. His fascination with sounds and noises turned the world into a tonal symphony—leaf blowers were B flats, elevator dings were Fs, the ring of a phone was a C sharp. And his acute sense of hearing made the air that blew out of the air conditioning vents a source of intense delight—and distraction.
When James was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at two and a half, music became our primary mode of communication and engagement. I began singing everything to him, almost all of our games became song-based, and most of our free time was devoted to listening to or making music. As his verbal skills progressed and he became more conversational, music remained key in our lives. Most of our extended family lives in New York, and we took frequent road trips to visit. These car rides became a treasured source of connection for our nuclear family—listening to CDs, and later Pandora, discussing our song and artist preferences, analyzing lyrics, and in James’s case cross-referencing bands, albums, and tracks, in ways that never even occurred to the rest of us. At home, James began to play the piano, sounding out favorite songs with mind-blowing accuracy. In school he quickly established an identity as “the music guy;” the best (and sometimes only) conversations with peers were—and are—driven by songs and music genres.
During rehearsals for school performances, he helps teach harmonies and accompanies students on the piano, experiencing rare moments of enthusiastic engagement with a group. His music teacher always finds opportunities to highlight James’s strengths—and it has done so much to bolster his self-esteem and feeling of community.
Searching for ways to expand his world musically, I was thrilled when a local beatboxer came to perform at his school. I tracked him down, and he was open to the idea of working privately with James in his studio. Their lessons have evolved over the last five years into an organic, creative process—and a collaboration that has produced more than 100 original tracks. James’s Sound Cloud page, where these tracks are catalogued, is a source of tremendous joy and pride to James—and of great entertainment to listeners. I share these tracks on social media in an effort to raise autism awareness and acceptance, to catch the ear of musicians and producers, and maybe even to help sow the seeds of a future career in music for my kid. Several months ago, London-based singer-songwriter Emma Ballantine listened and loved one of his tracks. Intrigued by it, along with an essay I’d written about James and his incredible appreciation for life’s simple joys, she decided to include James in a unique project she was working on, writing an album based on other people’s stories. The result was a gorgeous ballad that lyrically cuts to the heart of what so many people who love someone with autism feel—that we wish we could see the world through their eyes. Emma gave James songwriting credit on the track, and the day the EP was released it hit number one on the UK iTunes charts! It’s the first step towards James’s potential future as a professional musician.
Music’s hold on James continues to evolve at home. Over the last year or so, he has begun disappearing for hours on the third floor of our house, creating his own tracks with an electronic looping pedal, immersing himself in the music and the beats. It’s an activity that can be perseverative at times, but is, for the most part, incredibly generative and constructive. And, no discussion of music and James would be complete without discussing his love for the Sirius XM Hits 1 Weekend Countdown, a weekly satellite radio show that counts down the top 45 songs in North America. This consumes James’s Saturdays as he listens to the show from 6-9 a.m., and then scours the internet for a variety of Countdown blogs by other teens. He was inspired to start writing a “blog” of his own—a document that he shares with a favorite teacher (and which I have begged him—so far unsuccessfully—to take public).
James’s intense preoccupation with the Countdown is not just reserved for weekends. Throughout the week, James reads the comment sections on the blog he follows—and he begins his own Countdown predictions every Thursday—OK, maybe sometimes as early as Wednesday, if we’re being completely honest. James’s knowledge about the Countdown is extensive—dare I say exhaustive. We’ve connected via Twitter with Spyder Harrison, the DJ who hosts the Weekend Countdown. He’s invited us to visit his studio, and recently tweeted, “We need to hire dat boy!” and I tweeted back, “Yes, please!” It would be his dream job—but they would be lucky to have him.
Thoughts from James
Music has been a very important part of my life. It all started when I was at Ryan’s Daughter in Belvedere Square. I called out to the band, “I like that A!” and “That’s a nice C sharp!” And then we bought a piano at about age four. From 2012 to the present, I have taken lessons with an awesome person named Max Beats. We have created over a hundred songs and publish them to SoundCloud when we’re finished. But really, my current specialty in my everyday life is the Hits 1 Weekend Countdown on Sirius XM Radio. Spyder Harrison is the host and radio DJ of it. There are 45 songs and they are the biggest songs in North America. It always starts at 6 am on Saturdays. I get up that early to listen to it. I also make predictions for it every Thursday. Music makes me feel proud, glad, and smart, and I can show everyone anywhere how talented I am. I’m thinking about becoming a DJ when I grow up. That would be a very cool job. I also have a JamMan Looper, from which deleted all of my data, sadly, but I’ve been making solid tracks since then. Overall, music is one of the greatest things to me. It’s completely changed my life and is a major part of who I am.
Nancy Burrows is a freelance writer and coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two kids, Allie and James.
James Burrows is a 15-year-old student and musician. He lives in Baltimore with his parents, sister, keyboard looping pedals computer, and iPhone. His original music can be found at: https://soundcloud.com/jamesbgood.
This article was featured in Issue 67 – Preparing for Adulthood With Autism