Kyle Coleman rarely speaks, but when he sings he transcends conventional expression.
Visible signs of his autism distinguish his behaviour as “different”, yet through music he finds his voice and, with it, the power to communicate in a universal language.
Sitting on the sofa beside me, we have briefly shaken hands and made fleeting eye contact; now 27-year-old Kyle is deep in concentration, studying the pages of the fat musical encyclopedia that he reaches for every time he visits John Carter’s April Media Studios in Plymouth.
But when I ask him which song he would like to sing for me, his response is instant and decisive: “Standing On Solid Ground,” he declares, sitting up in readiness.
As the opening notes of his chosen track echo from the speakers in the studio control room, his foot begins to tap with the rhythm.
Then, when the melody kicks in, he delivers his first line with precision timing: “Repeated words that holds my moment, my body moves with pendulum time...”
His turn to be heard
Later, when the chorus begins, a big, broad smile spreads across Kyle’s face and he sings with warmth and clarity, in a quiet, earnest fashion: “But I’m standing, Oh, I’m standing, Yeah I’m standing, Standing on solid ground.”
“Singing is his turn to be heard,” says his mother, Caroline, who doubts that Kyle has any real comprehension of the words. “He will feel a song rather than think it.”
What she is absolutely sure of is the remarkable effect that singing and recording has had on him.
Kyle was diagnosed with autism – the banner term used to describe a group of complex disorders of brain development – at the age of three and was almost totally non-verbal until his mid 20s.
This week, to mark his extraordinary progress, and to coincide with World Autism Awareness Day, Kyle’s new album, Beyond the Syntax, makes its proud debut. A collection of 12 bold, diverse, high-quality original songs – including Standing On Solid Ground – it offers a window into his unique world and highlights the life-changing difference that music therapy can make.
“Kyle is so much calmer and more at peace. About three years ago, on a scale of ten, his anxiety level was around nine; I would say it’s about three now,” says Caroline.
“It’s opened a dialogue that makes Kyle and I more connected. He used to be very distant – autism can create a fortress around a person – but he pays attention when he is singing. He sleeps well, his tolerance levels are much better, and he’s been able to make friends for the first time.”
He also tends to choose music that reflects his mood. Recently Caroline was driving him to the funeral of a young friend. While appearing unemotional, he put on the Beatles’ Let It Be in the car.
“And then they played it at the crematorium, and he insisted on singing it,” she says.
So , what began as an experimental recording session has developed into an inspiring journey that not only presents a clear pathway for Kyle’s future, but also allows him to educate and entertain others.
Essentially the LP is a collaboration between Kyle, Caroline and studio owner John, 42, a highly experienced guitarist and producer.
Two years ago, Caroline brought Kyle to John’s studio so he could hear himself sing.
“It was clear straight away that he was really good,” says John.
Kyle enjoyed the experience too and the session blossomed into his first LP, Therefore I Am, versions of his favourite songs, like the Mamas and Papas’ Monday Monday, plus one original track, Just Listen. The video they shot for it scored 2,000 hits on YouTube in just a couple of days.
Beyond the Syntax – referring to the difficulty autistic people can have with ordering words – progresses to a more professional level.
Its lyrics were mostly penned by Caroline, who used to sing in a band in her youth. They all relate to autism in some way – its uniqueness to each individual, its manifestations, its restrictions and its effect on families.
“It was like writing poetry, but with a middle eight,” she muses.
John set her words to music, composing and playing diverse, intricate soundtracks with high production values, and he brought in experienced singer Chris Watts to record vocals that Kyle could listen to, copy and learn.
“I’ve seen a massive change in Kyle. He’s like a kid in a candy shop when he comes to the studio. And he is singing much more fluently and coherently,” says John, who is immensely proud of the project.
“I didn’t want the album to be about cliched anthems; some of the songs are strange, some are dark and some are beautiful. They all have messages behind them, but they are not blatant.”
Lead track Standing On Solid Ground, for example, attempts to explain stimming, repetitive movements like rocking, spinning, hand-clapping, lining up objects and rote recitation of phrases that are a common self-calming behaviour for some people with autism.
The accompanying video was shot in various locations in and around Cornwall and Plymouth and includes scenes of Kyle in a crowded city centre street – a scenario that would have made him very agitated in the past.
“That would have been unthinkable even a few months ago,” says Caroline, who lives with her son close to the sea at Gwithian in West Cornwall.
They moved there from the Home Counties five-and-a-half years ago and it’s a decision that has changed their lives in many ways.
“Kyle suffered really badly from hayfever; as soon as we came to the sea it was so much better,” says Caroline, who has two more children – Lewis, 28, who is completing an animation degree at Plymouth, and Harriet, 25, a fashion model in London.
As a child Kyle showed more interest in watching videos – “he was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine,” recalls Caroline – and playing video games than making music, although he loved listening and was fascinated by sound patterns.
It wasn’t until he was in his mid-20s and on a music course at Truro College that one of his teachers suggested one-to-one music therapy.
“He was unsure at first but a couple of sessions in, he amazed us all,” adds Caroline. “He ran upstairs, got his CDs and started singing the songs, word and pitch-perfect and playing the melody on the keyboard.”
Now Kyle is building up a large, eclectic and increasingly more sophisticated CD collection, much of it from the 1960s and 70s.
He has regular lessons with a voice coach and loves to perform for an audience at the day care centres and singing groups he attends.
“Everyone stops to listen when he sings,” says Caroline. “People come up and shake his hand and tell him he’s a pop star.”
“Pop star,” repeats Kyle, smiling again.
“They tell him what a great inspiration he is. He’s not the only person with autism who wants to sing,” she adds.
Kyle’s story is attracting much interest from charities and professionals who work with and study autistic people and music therapy.
Artist Laura Malacart, an expert in art, communication and film, has been following his journey closely to create a special installation that is opening at the Science Museum in London in June.
“It’s very much about music being a way of communicating, explains Caroline. “It starts off as a graphic novel with Kyle as a character, then you press a button and it goes into real film sequences from his life.”
Beyond the Syntax can be downloaded now from iTunes. A 32-page CD bookpack has lyrics, explanations of the songs, photographs and unique artwork will follow soon. Visit kylecoleman.co.uk.