Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sometimes the Way To People's Hearts is Through Their Ears

John O'Neil is a writer and editor at the New York Times. He's also the wonderful father of a wonderful son, James, who was born on the autism spectrum.

John's natural instinct to share his experience with the greater community resulted in a profile of James in the Times which earned him a Pulitzer nomination.

Later, he began scribbling poems about living in a household with autism on the train on the way to work. He emailed a few to Jon Fried, the father of his oldest boy’s best friend, and co-leader (with his wife, Deena Shoshkes) of the band, The Cucumbers, who set the words to music.

Over the next two years, the group was prolific, writing song after song, representing many aspects of the disorder and the challenges families face, expressed in as many musical moods. John’s son Chris, even added his own lyrics, articulating the fears and feelings of a sibling of a child with autism.

With nearly two dozen songs written, John and Jon sought out popular recording artists who would not only only bring their music to life but also inspire interest in the project, which they called SingSOS (Songs of the Spectrum). Those who graciously answered the call were Jackson Browne with Valerie Carter (both shown above), Dar Williams, Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Geiger, Jonatha Brooke, Richard Julian, Dan Bern with Mike Viola, Don Dixon with Marti Jones, Ollabelle, Christina Courtin, Ari Hest, Kelly Flint and, of course, The Cucumbers.

Funds were raised largely through concerts in people's homes on both coasts, where Jon and Deena performed the songs and John explained the genesis of the project.

SingSOS's message is striking a chord amongst both performers and listeners alike.

Dr. Ami Klin, Director of Research at the Yale Child Study Center, joined the SingSOS board after an in-home concert in New Haven, Connecticut. After one in L.A., Dr. Daniel Siegel, an author and psychiatrist at UCLA, offered to arrange for the group to present the material at the 2007 conference of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in Boston.

"Thank you,’’ wrote a single mother of a boy with autism on the group's MySpace page, “I feel less alone.’’

And Jackson Browne said the experience of recording his song was, “deeply spiritual.’’

To make the project even more inclusive, SingSOS also held a contest, inviting artists with autism to submit work to grace the forthcoming album's cover and booklet. The submissions are stunning and many are included in the video below, which sets them to the group's song, "One Went Missing," as performed by the popular New York-based folk band, Ollabelle.

The group is now looking at ways to get their music into people's hands, either through downloads or on CD.

All proceeds from sales of SingSOS music will go to groups working to raise awareness about autism and working directly with people on the autism spectrum, including Autism Speaks' global programs, The New York Center for Autism, the Alpine Learning Group, the McCarton Foundation and the Connecticut Center for Child Development.

That should be music to a lot of people's ears.

– Mark

SubscribeBookmark and Share


  1. Great post, Mark! The album will be available as a CD and as a download on November 19th, and you'll be able to choose which one of a group of national organizations and New York area autism school gets your donation. All proceeds to charity... a truly worthy cause.

  2. What a wonderful project! I'll be watching for this CD on November 19. Thanks for all your hard work and enthusiasm for this cause.