Guilford boy's autism inspires song from his perspective
By By Laura Jane Willoughby
For The Baltimore Sun|
Mar 29, 2017 | 9:20 PM
James Burrows is only 14, and he’s already both inspired and performed in a nationally-released song by a British singer-songwriter. He also has autism, and music has become his passion and expression to the world, a part of his everyday routine.
Staccato thumps reverberate from upstairs as 14-year-old James Burrows re-creates the sounds of Interstate 83, marking the beats on the hardwood floor. His mother, Nancy Burrows, drives the route often, and it's become a point of fixation for the autistic teenager.
The rhythms of the road — as interpreted by James — are also the basis for a soon-to-be-released song by a London-based artist. Singer-songwriter Emma Ballantine will release "Through Your Eyes" Friday, on the eve of National Autism Awareness Month, highlighting the beauty James sees in everyday life.
As James gallops overhead, Nancy Burrows recounts how tears welled in her eyes the first time she listened to the lyrics:
"Driving down the highway for the 700th time / Your nose against the window at the sight of the skyline / Every time you see it / Oh it takes you by surprise / I wish I could see the world through your eyes."
For Burrows and her husband, Whit, the lyrics cut to the core of their life with James, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. James is on the higher-functioning end of the range of developmental disorders, characterized by communication issues, social impairment and repetitive behaviors. He can verbally communicate with others, but he often fixates on new interests, and these drive his conversations and interactions with the world.
"I had never actually articulated this idea of wanting to see the world through his eyes, but [Ballantine] so got that. And she cut to the heart of what so many people who love somebody with autism feel," the 51-year-old Guilford resident said.
Like punctuation, the thumps from overhead soften and syncopate before they end altogether.
"There are so many things that are challenging in how he sees the world, and in helping him navigate the world. So to be able to look at it in a really beautiful positive way ... it was a moment of seeing the beauty in how he sees the world," Burrows said.
James joins his mom in the living room, a camera in hand, replaying over and over the sounds he recorded earlier. Burrows interrupts his listening to ask him about Ballantine's song.
"Right now I have a lyric I like," James said. He looks back down at the camera, sounds still emanating from the camera's speakers.
The song is the result of an international collaboration born on social media. James' preoccupation with sounds and his diagnosis are often the fodder for Burrows' work as a writer, which has appeared in autism-related publications like "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum." Her writings, in turn, inspired Ballantine, who was a finalist in last year's UK Unsigned Songwriters Competition and whose music has played on BBC radio stations.
She wanted to tell other people's stories in her latest album.
"Once I read those stories about James, I got a vivid glimpse of his world," Ballantine said.
Her understanding only grew when she listened to a track on his SoundCloud account, where he shares electronic music tracks created on his keyboard.
"I found myself tearing up because you suddenly get a glimpse at the creativity and thoughts and ideas of James," she says. "It felt so unique, a lovely mixture of a beat running through it and this twinkly sound. It felt expansive and imaginative and totally unlike any music you hear."
The track, called "Don't Bore Anyone's Ears," would become the basis for the slowly unfolding chord progression in Ballantine's song, eventually becoming the dominant piece of music at the end. It also earned James co-writing credit on "Through Your Eyes," the live launch of which is on James' 15th birthday, April 9.
Music has become the way James, his parents and his 17-year-old sister, Allie, connect, bond and engage.
Burrows recounts James' long-term relationship with music, which started when he was 1 and would wake up from his naps humming a note. Burrows would carry him down to the family's keyboard, and James would immediately play the note.
His diagnosis — then called pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, or atypical autism — came at 2½ years old. By age 3, he was calling out the notes he would hear in everyday life.
"A lot of kids with autism are noise sensitive," Burrows said. "He wasn't like that, but he would hear everything."
He loves the hum of air conditioning, the white noise of air through vents; even the hum of the Jenn Air refrigerator at his aunt's house.
James' focus on sounds overall is typical, according to Christine Accardo. As a behavioral analyst and director of clinical programs at The Shafer Center, an early-intervention school for children on the autism spectrum, she's worked with James since he was 4.
Children with autism use repetitive motions or sounds to stimulate their senses, which leads to the rocking, hand-flapping and vocalizations that often mark autism. But, "James is special because he has such a unique musical ability and you're talking about a small population who has that gift anyway," Accardo said.
For several years, a kaleidoscope of colors filled his mind whenever he heard music, a phenomenon known as sound-to-color synesthesia. C sharp was pink. F sharp was gold. B flat and E flat were black.
A growing body of research shows that synesthesia, a general mixing of multiple senses, is more common in those with autism, though exactly why that's the case is still unclear. A November 2013 study in the journal Molecular Autism uncovered the phenomenon in 18.9 percent of study participants with autism — nearly three times the amount of study participants without autism.
James' synesthesia is abated now, replaced with a steady stream of music production.
After a full day of classes at Baltimore Lab School, James will spend hours each day in a third-floor room, stationed at his keyboard with a looping pedal. In quick succession, he will record tracks that range from circus-inspired electronic music to popular radio songs re-created by ear to tracks mimicking highway noises beneath the family car's wheels.
"If I was doing a test and the question said, 'Do you listen to music?' and the choices were 'always, occasionally or never,' right off the bat the answer would be 'always,'" James said.
"Yeah, like always," Burrows added. "Even when the teacher's talking. Even when you're supposed to be thinking about 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' or biology."
"Like, always," James said. "Music is just one of my specialties."
Max Bent, a Baltimore-based beat boxer and producer who has worked in private sessions with James since late 2012, agrees.
"He has this really super whimsical, hard-to-pin down ear. He's not genre-based," Bent said.
Bent started out teaching James beatboxing but then moved to guiding James in creating the electronic tracks that fill his SoundCloud page, which now number 100.
"I'm not surprised that Emma Ballantine saw the beauty in the song she chose," Bent said. "I think it's a good example of his work, and it's the kind of thing that not a lot of people could create even if they wanted to create something weird and whimsical and beautiful. … I think it's reassuring that an established singer-songwriter could immediately see the value in what he's producing."
Bent isn't the only one with an eye towards James' future.
"Music is the key into him. And for him, music will be the key to the world, I think," Burrows said. "That could be what he does one day. Whether it's working for a radio station or being a studio musician or an engineer — that's what it's going to be," Burrows said.
"Unless he's a highway planner," she added with a laugh.