31 Dec

Poems about Autism – Harmonies from the heart

Alone in a corner
Rocking in a chair
Staring in the mirror
Alone while we’re right there

By Jay Lustig/The Star-Ledger, , December 31, 2009


john-o-neil.jpgJohn O’Neil, his son James, Jon Fried and Deena Shoshkes are pictured in Fried’s basement studio in Millburn. The group’s collection of songs about autism were recorded by Jackson Browne.

— John O’Neil

John O’Neil had no grand artistic plan when he started writing poems about autism, the developmental disorder that had severely affected his son James’ ability to learn, communicate, and interact with others.

“It had been something I had been thinking about 20 hours a day for several years; it’s a very consuming experience,” says the Millburn resident. “I just wanted to try and get some of it down, and see what would happen.”

O’Neil’s words — set to music by Jon Fried and Deena Shoshkes of the alternative-pop band the Cucumbers, and sung by Jackson Browne, Marshall Crenshaw, Dar Williams and many other prominent musicians — can now be heard on a benefit album, “Songs of the Spectrum.”

The recording is being sold, in both CD and download form, through the website, with proceeds going to a variety of organizations that fight autism, which is a particularly dire problem in New Jersey. According to a 2007 study of 14 states, one in 94 children in New Jersey — as opposed to one in 150 across the other states — was affected.

Fittingly, “Songs of the Spectrum” is a rare example of a benefit album whose content is focused squarely on the cause. Christina Courtin yearns for a cure in “If It Were His Legs,” and Ari Hest marvels about the healing process in “Treatment.” Dan Bern and Mike Viola make an appeal for support and empathy in the rousing “It’s Time.”

“People might think a CD about autism would be a real downer,” says O’Neil. “But we wanted to show the full spectrum of emotions. That’s part of the reason it’s called ‘Songs of the Spectrum.’” (The title also refers to the spectrum of disorders that fall under the autism umbrella.)

James, who is now 13 and has made great progress since being diagnosed 11 years ago, added his own voice to the project with a spoken-word piece called “My Perspective,” while his older brother Chris contributed lyrics for “Afraid (My Brother’s Cries),” which is sung by Teddy Geiger.

“I’m afraid that he’s slipping away right before my eyes/I’m afraid that no one will hear my brother’s cries,” Geiger sings in one of the album’s most moving moments.

An editor at the New York Times who also has written about autism for the newspaper, John O’Neil became friends with Fried and Shoshkes, also of Millburn, when Chris and the musicians’ son, Jamie, became friends. (John and his wife Marcia Sherman, a physician, have a third son as well.)

About six years ago, O’Neil approached Fried and Shoshkes about writing music for his words.

“Frankly, a feeling of dread overcame me,” said Fried, who expected that he would have to find a way to tell his friend, politely, that he wasn’t interested.

But when O’Neil sent five sets of lyrics in an e-mail, Fried said, “They just struck an immediate chord. I had this rush … I had this guitar on my lap, and I found myself playing this riff, sort of absently. And I said, ‘Well, that’s the first song.’ I got that one sketched out, and I did the next one and the next one, and in 15 minutes I had sketched out five songs. It was like a thunderbolt. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. And I spent the next week, every free minute I had, finishing these songs.”

Soon, he played them for O’Neil.

“It was a shock; it was a revelation,” says O’Neil. “It didn’t seem like anything that I had written. It really was transformed.”

They kept co-writing songs, and Shoshkes got involved, too. Before long, a team was in place. Dan Griffin, a former Cucumbers road manager who does a lot of charitable work, helped get the album rolling. Michael Visceglia, a music industry veteran who signed on as producer, lined up singers. Money for the project was raised through house concerts: Fried and Shoshkes would perform the songs, and O’Neil would give a talk about autism.

Recording sessions — some of which took place in Fried and Shoshkes’ basement studio — took about two and a half years

“We’d get an artist, we’d get some money together, and put down a track,” says O’Neil. “And the more we had, the more we had to show people. And the more people heard about it, the more interest there was.”

In addition to the music, the finished album offers electronic files with an abundance of information about autism. offers more information, and can serve as a platform for people to connect with one another.

“I think there’s a universal message in the content,” says Shoshkes. “The first song I worked on was ‘Day After Day,’ and I really had the feeling that that song was about love itself. And ‘When You Grow Up,’ that is a feeling that any parent has about any child. It’s just magnified, for John and other parents like him.”

“I hope people who are not touched by autism will hear (the album) and realize that it’s within the realm of what they know,” says O’Neil. “It may be in the extreme end of it, but every parent deals with fears and insecurities, and every child has difficulties.”

O’Neil, Fried and Shoshkes are hoping to enlist a retailer to help sell the album, especially leading up to April, which is Autism Awareness Month. They’re also thinking about putting together a concert with some of the album’s artists and approaching record labels for help with distribution. It was important for them, though, to make the album available during the holiday season, as it could be natural gift for families struggling with autism.

Autism, says O’Neil, “is so overwhelming that people end up feeling very isolated in their struggle. We think of this as something a mom could give to her parents, or to a friend, to explain what is difficult to explain.”

Jay Lustig may be reached at or (973) 392-5850.

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