Sending Out an SOS to the World

Grassroots Group Enlists Major Artists to Sing About Autism

By Published on .

Mark Drossman
Mark Drossman
According to a recent report by the federal government, one in every 100 children has an autism spectrum disorder. This is up from the one in 150 that was estimated in a previous federal study only a few years ago.

Knowing from personal experience that parents of such children need answers as well as reassurance that all is not lost, three residents of Millburn, N.J., dedicated their time, energy and talent to getting the message out in a way that makes this difficult subject easy on the ears.

John O'Neil, a writer and editor at the New York Times, has a son, James, who was born on the autism spectrum. O'Neil shared his experience in a profile of James in the Times that earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He also began writing poems about the subject during his train ride into New York each workday. He e-mailed a few to Jon Fried, a friend and neighbor (who performs with his wife, Deena Shoshkes, as the band The Cucumbers). The duo began setting O'Neil's words to music.

With nearly two dozen songs ready for performance, O'Neil and Fried sought popular recording artists who not only would bring the music to life but also inspire interest in the project, creating a CD called "SingSOS" (songs of the spectrum).

Answering the call were Jackson Browne with Valerie Carter, Dar Williams, Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Geiger, Jonathan Brooke, Richard Julian, Dan Bern with Mike Viola, Don Dixon with Marti Jones, Ollabelle, Christina Courtin, Ari Hest, Kelly Flint and The Cucumbers. The CD concludes with a spoken word piece recorded by O'Neil's son, James, describing life from his unique point of reference.

SingSOS' message is already striking a chord with 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 Connecticut. Following a similar concert in Los Angeles, Dr. Daniel Siegel, an author and psychiatrist at UCLA, offered to arrange for SingSOS to present the material at the 2007 conference of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in Boston.

"Thank you. I feel less alone,'' wrote a single mother of a boy with autism on the group's MySpace page. And Jackson Browne said the experience of recording his song was "deeply spiritual.''

To enrich the experience, SingSOS held a contest, inviting artists with autism to submit work to grace the album's cover and inner pages, (designed by former Atlantic Records creative director, Liz Barrett).

Everyone who purchases the album at, either as a digital download or CD package, gets to choose – from among a growing list of major autism awareness groups – which one gets the donation. If a favorite group isn't there, there's a box for suggesting it be included later. There's also a form that encourages groups that are not yet represented to apply. In addition, the site offers free, downloadable information about the subject as well as links.

SingSOS enlisted my agency, Extrovertic, to help get the word out about this very important project. Because of the grassroots nature of the effort, we've taken a pure social media approach—using a blog, Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube—to build a digital footprint for the cause.

Mark Drossman is a founding partner and chief creative extrovert at Extrovertic.
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