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Non-Verbal Teen to 'Take on the World' With a Symphony Written in His Head

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Two people sit in front of a piano with a florid pattern on the wall behind them.
Jacob Rock, 19, and musician Rob Laufer, sit at the piano together in Rock’s family home music studio in Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. Jacob is non-verbal and autistic. As he began to communicate through a typing app on his iPad, he told his parents he had a 70-minute symphony in his head, titled 'Unforgettable Sunrise.' Laufer helped to translate that vision into a musical score to be performed on Sept. 30 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. (Alisha Jucevic for KQED)

This story was updated on Wednesday, Sept. 27 to reference the ongoing debate in the autism community over “facilitated communication,” and to include the perspective of Jacob Rock’s neurologist on his ability to type independently.

At first glance, the Rock family’s house on top of a hill in Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood looks much like the others on the block, except that it’s painted a deep blue.

Once you walk down the driveway, however, it’s clear music lovers live here.

There’s a professional stage and tables set up for backyard concerts followed by a home music studio that houses a giant record collection. A variety of musical instruments are scattered around the space. Jacob Rock, 19, loves to bang on whatever is nearby: congas, wind chimes, the piano.

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Jacob was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. As he grew older, he would often flail his arms and hit, pinch, or punch himself to the point of breaking skin. He could verbalize only two words: “yes” and “eat.” He didn’t have the motor skills to point to the right answers in school. Some of his teachers told his parents that he probably had a very low IQ because he couldn’t speak.

But Dr. Margaret L. Bauman, one of Jacob’s neurologists, disagreed.

She thought Jacob could learn to type and unlock his ability to communicate. It was a journey that took seven long years. During shelter-in-place in 2020, Jacob finally made a breakthrough, pecking out letters with one finger on an iPad. He was 16.

A person uses an ipad to type a sentence.
Jacob Rock uses an iPad to communicate at the family’s home music studio in Los Angeles on Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. His neurologist confirms that even though his father holds the device for him, Jacob types independently. (Alisha Jucevic for KQED)

Bauman has been working with Jacob since he was 5 years old. Based on her observations of him, she confirmed that he’s now capable of typing and communicating independently.

There’s serious, ongoing debate in the autism community about whether kids like Jacob are actually typing on their own, or whether their communication is being facilitated by parents or other caregivers who are manipulating their devices or guiding them as they type. But Bauman says she has seen no evidence of that happening with Jacob.

“I understand the controversy about facilitated communication,” Bauman said. “I do not see this as facilitated communication. [Jacob] has a means of communicating what his thoughts are.”

“He started really expressing himself and typing in full sentences,” Paul said. “Everything was spelled correctly.”

“It was damn, damn satisfying that I could claim my terrific identity and show everyone my intelligence,” typed Jacob, when asked about what it felt like to finally be able to communicate in words.

One of the first things he told his parents on his text-to-speech app was: “My name is Jacob. Not Jake.”

“He just wanted to say, ‘Look, I’m here,’” Paul said. “‘And you’ve been underestimating me the whole time. But I’ve been watching and listening.’”

Soon, Jacob started writing poetry, which Paul would post on Facebook.

Your Assumptions Are Wrong

By Jacob Rock 🌿

Everything I read is digested in my brain and locked away.

I am a prisoner in my body but breaking out in style.

I love my dad for rescuing me from the sadness.

I make great noise every time I lay my mouth on my ipad.

Mind over Matter will save my life.

No matter what you think of me and my noises, I am listening and learning.

My sadness is gone and I am tremendously ready to take on the world.

Becoming a composer

Six months after learning to type, Jacob surprised his parents again. He told them he had a 70-minute symphony in his head. Composer and musician Rob Laufer helped Jacob translate that music to a score on the page. It’s called Unforgettable Sunrise.

The title reflects his sunrise out of silence.

https://www.instagram.com/reel/Cxq7-laLFos/

The orchestra from USC’s Thornton School of Music premieres Jacob’s work on Sept. 30 at Glendale’s Alex Theatre, conducted by Daniel Newman-Lessler.

While the symphony is joyous, it also chronicles the physical and mental distress Jacob has endured. He suffers from severe digestion issues and often has terrible stomach pain — something he couldn’t tell his parents about before he learned to type.

A person with short hair and glasses sits at a piano.
Musician Rob Laufer is pictured at the Rock family’s home studio in Los Angeles. Rob Laufer has been working with Jacob Rock for about 2 years to translate Jacob’s vision into a musical score. (Alisha Jucevic for KQED)

That’s why his music has a bittersweet quality to it — pain and joy are always intertwined.

Jacob’s parents weren’t surprised that music became a way for him to channel his emotions. As a baby, Jacob always calmed down in the car when they played music really loud, and he would bang on instruments like drums and piano.

At 18 months old, he started dancing in time to one of the Beach Boys’ most complex and avant-garde songs, “Cabinessence.” And, as a 10-year-old, he would go out on the porch in the middle of the night and play the wind chimes.

“I would wake up and our front door would be wide open at three in the morning,” Paul said. “So I knew he was serious about music.”

Jacob also grew up around music. His dad has spent years organizing concerts for charity through the Wild Honey Foundation, including a string of sold-out, all-star autism benefit shows featuring the music of bands like The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Buffalo Springfield and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Sometimes, those concerts happened in the Rocks’ backyard. Sometimes, in larger venues.

Two standing people talk with two seated peopl in an indoor setting filled with people and musical instruments.
Paul Rock and his son Jacob visit with the musicians during the first rehearsal of Jacob and Rob Laufer’s symphonic collaboration, ‘Unforgettable Sunrise,’ with a 54-person orchestra at University of Southern California in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. (Alisha Jucevic for KQED)

Laufer, the composer and musician, and Paul have collaborated on many projects over the years, including Wild Honey ensembles. Laufer also worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Johnny Cash, Fiona Apple and other musicians. But when Paul called and asked him to translate Jacob’s musical vision to the page, he was daunted by the idea.

“I was fascinated and intrigued,” Laufer said. “But it seemed like this [was] going to be a wild, long ride. And I do not know what it’s going to be. It was a complete mystery.”

Jacob can’t sing or read music. His iPad can only express his voice in words. But he could describe the music he was hearing in his head in terms of mood, instruments and emotion. He sent Laufer an outline with detailed instructions for six movements, each with a title and carefully delineated sections with specific time codes. Here’s an example:

ACT 4:  Laughing in my Sleep

4a Scary Laughing (2 min)

flutes open with 2 minutes of scary laughing. At the 30-second mark, they are joined by congas and drums. Chimes join at the 45-second mark. At the one-minute mark, tuba joins the mix.

4b Drown Out (45 sec)

At 2-minute mark, they are drowned out by waves of violins and piano for 45 seconds. Fast and choppy.

(Harp 30 seconds)

4c Violins and piano takeover (30 sec) ***

The violins and piano take over for another 30 seconds.

Sometimes, the instructions were more poetic:

“The violins are demanding sleep and the horns are demanding pain,” Jacob wrote. “They battle for 3 minutes of call and response until the horns realize that they are defeated (Every manic horn met by soaring violin).”

Laufer was amazed at the precision of Jacob’s vision for the symphony. His directions were exacting, but always made the piece better.

“Everything he would say made sense, because it was coherent to his soul, to the story he wanted to tell,” Laufer said. “Here’s a guy who was able to communicate his entire life of feelings,” he continued. “So I was getting this fresh fire to handle. I trusted it completely for what it was.”

Jacob grew to trust Laufer as well.

“I was unbelievably damn-floored by Rob’s ability to tap into my emotions,” Jacob typed. “I can only say that he is my great collaborator and he reads my musical mind. He always can feel what I want and turn it into amazing notes.”

Paul said Jacob is elated that his music will be performed in front of an audience.

A group of four people talk and laugh in an indoor setting.
Rob Laufer (left) jokes with Jacob during the first rehearsal of Jacob and Rob’s symphonic collaboration, ‘Unforgettable Sunrise,’ at University of Southern California. (Alisha Jucevic for KQED)

“He tells me all the time how much happier he is now,” Paul said.

Jacob is already working on a new project — a Mozart-influenced opera. He said being autistic has been a gift, allowing him to tap into the power of music.

“I am staying out of wanting to have really damn, damn feelings on my failures,” he said through his iPad. “But I would tell people that I believe that I am gifted with having strong emotions about even the smallest notes in my work.”

For his part, Paul is astounded at Jacob’s resilience. After years of self-harming, he’s not lingering in a negative space.

“I think most people would be totally shattered, being ignored and being downplayed,” Paul said. “But to him, it was like water off his back. He still has amazing compassion and humor.”

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