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Autistic boy finds voice with Katy Perry's 'Roar'

Jack Robbins is finally releasing his roar.

The 8-year-old Texas boy with severe autism has been only able to express his most basic and immediate needs, uttering single words like “snack,” “water,” and “go.” He doesn’t communicate feelings or emotions.

But to his family’s delight, Jack began singing the familiar refrain from Katy Perry’s hit song “Roar” last week. It was the first time that Jack, who can repeat phrases when asked, had spontaneously strung words together, said his mother, Carla Robbins, who proudly posted a video of her son’s rendition on YouTube.

“I was completely amazed and so excited,” said Robbins of Frisco, Texas. “For all these years, I’ve cooked for him, I put things on him, I dress him,” she said. “I don’t know if he likes them or hates them. This is huge for me to finally know something that he likes.”

Jack Robbins, 8, of Frisco Texas

It’s also huge because Jack is so easygoing, Robbins says, and he never puts up a fuss.  

“He works really hard and he takes what he gets,” she said. “Sometimes I want him to say, ‘I don’t like that.’ He never does. Now I know something he likes and I’m so grateful for that.”

Years ago, Jack had the beginnings of “mama,” “dada” and “dog,” Robbins said, but he lost those early words at about 18 months. His autism diagnosis came at age 2, and with intensive speech therapy, he regained the ability to utter single words.

Along with his mother, 6-year-old brother, Joe, and father, Brent, Jack belongs to a music-loving family and tunes are often playing at home and in the car. Jack sings often, Robbins said, making irregular noises in a “sing-songy” way.

Last week, the family noticed something unusual: With no background music playing, the soft noises Jack kept making sounded the same.  

“That’s when we tried to decipher what he was saying,” said Robbins, adding that it was her husband who figured out what song their son was singing. When they asked Jack, he kept on singing, and even let his mother videotape him, something he usually doesn’t allow, she said.

“When I showed it to him, he loved it,” Robbins said. “He seemed really excited that we knew what he was saying.”

For autistic children, music can play an important role.

The Robbins family of Frisco, Texas

“It serves to help calm and relax children with autism and it’s potentially a means for them to help develop language,” said Dr. Ann Neumeyer, a pediatric neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and medical director of the hospital’s Lurie Center for Autism.

Some 20 to 25 percent of children with autism are nonverbal like Jack and often cannot move their mouths to speak words, she said. But the pathways in the brain for speaking are a little different than the ones for repeating words and singing, Neumeyer said, and some kids can sing before they speak.

“If you can get them to use this alternative pathway through music to start speaking, then it helps grease the wheels for language,” Neumeyer said.

As for Jack, she said: “What I see in this video is a very encouraging sign of a child who is starting to make words and to repeat phrases and sing and this is one of the first steps toward potentially developing verbal language.”

The Robbins family has worked tirelessly for Jack. They have taken him to doctors around the country, moved to Frisco for the autism services provided in the public schools and are always looking for ways to help him express himself.

Jack’s singing is giving Robbins hope that she might learn more about the boy she wants so badly to know inside and out.

Over the years, as much as the family tried to help Jack, there have been times when it didn’t seem to make a difference.

“It’s been frustrating and hard and it didn’t seem like we were making progress,” Robbins said. “He showed us now he can make progress. Maybe it’s slower than we anticipated but he is in there and he does have an opinion."

Robbins posted the video, now viewed more than 200,000 times, hoping that perhaps a few hundred people, Perry among them, would see it. 

“If I was her, I would want to know how my music touched someone, especially as special as Jack,” Robbins said.

As Jack continues to sing the fitting lyrics from “Roar,” the song has become an important one for the family.

“It’s totally our anthem,” Carla Robbins said, adding that Joe likes to watch Perry’s “Roar” video every night before bed. “I hear it all the time and it makes me tear up every time I hear it because I think of Jack.”