Music and Autism: Creating a school song for the charity Prior’s Court

Back in 2016, I contributed a small amount of piano and guitar to the soundtrack of Nick Kelly’s film The Drummer and the Keeper. Set in Dublin, it’s a tale of an unlikely friendship forged between Gabriel, a renegade drummer suffering from bipolar and recovering from his mother’s death, and Christopher, a teenager with Asperger’s. Christopher lives in a residential school alongside children with similar developmental disorders, he meets Gabriel at a mixed ability football session which Gabriel has been encouraged to go to by his therapist as part of his treatment. Through the film, we trace the trials of each of their respective lives and their growing friendship as Gabriel is thrown out of his band, and Christopher learns that he is not to return home after turning 18, but rather is to be moved to another facility for young adults. 

It’s a story of reconciliation and friendship, daringly told through the prism of Kelly’s own experience raising an autistic child. In the film’s closing scene (spoiler alert), we see Gabriel (now a tutor at Christopher’s school) take to the drums, with some of the school’s more non-verbal children, to perform a song in front of the parents and teachers. It’s an incredibly moving moment, with music acting as a bridge between the challenges of one life and another, and as a means of communication between individuals who would otherwise struggle to communicate.

A year later, I couldn’t help but think of this closing scene when Jamie and I found ourselves at Prior’s Court in Newbury, a specialist residential school catering for the needs of young people with severe autism. The school was set up by Dame Stephanie Shirley who, after raising her own autistic son, found the provision for young people with autism profoundly inadequate. Prior’s Court was the school she wanted her son to have, and it has flourished since, celebrating its 20th anniversary in September this year. 

We had been approached by the school’s CEO, Mike Robinson, to create a song for them. With little understanding of autism ourselves, Mike encouraged us to visit to meet the staff and pupils. He had told us that music was an integral part of school life and, through conversations he’d had with staff, he was sure it could be channeled into a collective project; a fun idea if nothing else, but also with the potential of creating something that could form part of the school’s wider identity. How exactly to do that, he wasn’t sure, and it was this challenge that he issued to us. 

After a number of visits Jamie and I got to know the school – we were struck by the enormous dedication of the 500 staff supporting the 90 young people there, and even more struck by the energy of the young people and their courage in dealing with the challenges of their everyday lives. We gradually got to know the children: there was Jess, who loved singing hymns; Rowan, who could perform a knockout rendition of Julie Andrews’ ‘Getting to Know You’; Antonio, whose piano playing could have been mistaken for some of Steve Reich’s compositions; Ricardo, who sang with a beautiful hushed voice, and Jamie, hilarious and ebullient, as well as a keen drummer. 

And then there was the staff. Guided by their inspiring academic head, Sue Piper, we sat in on classes observing how each lesson began with a ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ song, with music as an integral part of language-learning and the games that they played. There was Peter, who came up to us in the canteen during our first visit and said, ‘I hear you are writing a song for the school, I thought ‘accept me for who I am and let me shine’ could be a good lyric.’ This would later become the chorus. There was Tomson, a drummer and originator of the whole project; Andrew, guitarist/trumpet player; Andy, a bass player in the IT department who played like Steve Duffield from The Beta Band; and Kerry and Laura, two fantastic singers. A picture began to form, and we soon realized that there was a whole range of talent here that we could draw on for our song. We had taken our small handheld recorder to all of the visits, recording the sounds of the school throughout, hoping that this could provide an environment in which the recording could live. 

As Jamie and I turned our minds to writing the song, we quickly agreed that we couldn’t write the lyrics; this was something the school had to own and we were merely the facilitators. We took notes from poems on the school’s walls and pieces of art made by the young people, and we spoke to staff and families, asking them to send us pieces of writing conveying how they felt about the school. It was out of this tapestry that we were able to create the lyrics. A number of common themes emerged: acceptance, the importance of understanding the individual needs of each young person in order for them to achieve their fullest potential, and of celebrating the special bond that existed between the young people and those supporting them. There was also a sense of respecting the different paces at which each young person developed, leading to one of my favourite lines in the song: ‘I help you paint with your own colours, to your own rhythm.’  

Once written, then began the not-small task of teaching everyone the song, and what followed was quite extraordinary. We recorded a rough demo with Jamie and I singing the track accompanied by an acoustic guitar and sent it to the school. Through using a number of cutting-edge teaching methodologies such as the Picture Exchange Communication system, TEACCH, and signing, young people who had limited verbal skills began to pick up the song in its entirety and those who were completely non-verbal were taught to sign it. Jamie and I were amazed when we returned to find the whole school had learned the song. We hid in the corner of classrooms setting up microphones for students to come forward and sing, removing performative pressures; we recorded the school’s percussion group playing along in time to the song; we recorded all of the staff and pupils singing together in their school hall, and we took the staff musicians to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, recording the instrumentals for the track. After 6 months, we finally had the finished version, complete with the voices of the young people, staff, staff musicians and ambience of the school.

‘Let Me Shine’, with its accompanying video, filmed by Ric Rawlins, was released on World Autism Day, March 7th, 2018, amassing over one million views on Facebook in its first 24 hours. To our great pride and joy, it has since become their school song, sung or signed in assemblies and woven into the fabric of school life. Dame Shirley tells us that whenever she is speaking at a conference discussing autism and her two other autism charities, she will play the song and its video. Since then, we have taken the song to Abbey Road, and recorded it live there with the young people, staff, Cheshire Firefighter’s Choir and musicians from other bands, an unforgettable day that breathed new life and longevity into the project, giving the students and their families (and us!) the opportunity to experience a world-class recording studio. 

As we visited the school only the other day for its 20th-anniversary celebrations, it is clear that the song continues to have an impact, both as part of the school’s daily life, and also as a lasting memory that has brought the school’s community closer together. Meeting people from other charities at the event, we continued to reflect on what we have learned from the process. Chiefly, the use of music as a therapeutic tool, its ability to communicate and assist the language-learning and well-being of young people with autism cannot be overstated. It is only since making the song that we have started to read around the links between music and autism, and have found so many of the studies chiming in with our own experiences, be it from Ockelford’s (2013) description of melody acting like a ‘clothesline; the notes are pegs and the words clip on to these in the mind’ or Schellenberg’s (2005) findings that music has a stimulating effect on the nervous system, changing emotional states which in turn can enhance cognitive ability. Beyond the science, music’s ability to forge relationships, to connect young people with autism to the people around them, and to strengthen the identity of a community is what has stuck with us the most. We will be forever grateful to Dame Shirley, Mike, the staff and young people of Prior’s Court for including us in the journey to make their school song. 

Photos provided by Low Island.

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