DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Clay Aiken’s Learning to Sing  (and film Autism is a World, Rain Man)


Author (or Editor):  Aiken, Clay   (or Clayton)

Title: Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life

Fiction? Anthology?  

Publisher:  Random House

Date: 2004

ISBN:  1-4000-6392-2

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 258 pgs, color photos, childhood recipes, directing and acting resume (check  for more details on his background—many people are not aware of his acting and directing experience!)

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL: educating and raising children; music


The title is a bit metaphorical. The notion is that everyone has his own “music”—his own special mission, that may be God-given. In a review like this, I have to remain generic as to religion and spirituality, but Christianity teaches that God often reveals purposes to the open individual that the person would not see with just his or her own intellectual resources.

At this point, I presume most people know who the author is: The #2 finisher in the (Fox network) “American Idol” 2003 season (yes, getting through the questioning but amiable Ryan Seacrest, dealing with Simon Cowell, etc), behind Ruben Stoddard. Some of his songs resonate in memory and stick, such as “Invisible.” I have heard him perform live once, at the July 4, 2004 celebration on the Mall in Washington, DC.  

So with his book, Clay Aiken maps his own music career to his own education as a counselor and teacher, finally a special education teacher for autistic (or perhaps other special needs) kids. The chapter titles concerning music correspond to various stages in his own journey. The narrative style is very simple, with short sentences and paragraphs and not too many big words. In his circumstances, such simplicity and discipline will help sell the book in a real-world market.

I leave the details of the journey to the reader with the book. Mr. Aiken gives some examples of his encounters teaching special needs kids, and makes some interesting comments, as on p. 160 when he writes:

“I saw how kids without disabilities learn a lot from kids with them. For a start, they realize that there are more things to worry about than what to wear to school on Monday.”

Particularly since “No Child Left Behind,” many high schools have programs for the severely learning impaired, but not all high schools allow the most impaired students to mix with or be seen by (as in the cafeteria) by the general school population. From my own substitute assignments, I know that walking into one of these special classrooms is likely visiting another world. Mr. Aiken discusses teaching special needs students as a substitute, which often happens (because of the extremely high labor demands, associated with individual attention, in special education relative to the general student population), and this does not give the student much continuity. The substitute, if untrained, may feel embarrassed if asked to relate to such a student in a more “personal” or authority-figure manner than the lesson content itself would normally demand.  It would seem to me that school systems must pay much more attention to training people who work with special needs kids separately, even substitutes—and hiring separately. Yet Mr. Aiken was first hired into this kind of a job at around age 20 as a kind of novice—although he had work in this area before with the YMCA’s.

Mr. Aiken goes down a difficult and unusually sensitive road on page 149 when he mentions the fact that the YMCA would only admit a particular Down syndrome child to a program if the parents would provide a private personal caretaker. Now people who teach severely disabled special needs students (roughly speaking, those who are not “high-functioning”—Aiken uses the term to describe a way some kids can be excluded) could be required to give personal custodial care, and this might create legal issues for an older employee like me (as a substitute teacher), say, when I have publicly announced my homosexuality and tried to profit commercially from publicizing it in connection with various political issues (my own “Do Ask Do Tell” books).  [The reasoning here follows as a corollary of the justification of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays.] There is a secondary point here, too—if one works in this field, one may have personal motives for not working with the most severely disabled, impaired or non-intact students. At this point, however, Mr. Aiken drops the subject and moves on with his narrative.  By page 156 he is talking about his experiences with autistic students, who can also be extremely varied. (I don’t recall that he gets into Asperger’s Syndrome, which is sometimes views as a milder form of autism, and which may be a personality’s excessive focus on its own needs and comfort levels with its environment.)

On page 150, he males another great epigraph:

“I know that good men do not stay good if they become consumed by ego.”

The media has made a lot of Clay’s gawky, geeky or nerdy “appearance” when younger, including Simon Cowell’s comments during the American Idol auditions. I’m only used to seeing the “adult” Clay. There are many color pictures, from boyhood to adulthood, with varying degrees of formality. This is his picture show, but some of the photos I would have taken more carefully.

Shankar Vedantam has a report in the Sept. 5, 2006 Washington Post: “Autism Risk Rises With Age of Father: Large Study Finds Strong Correlation.”  My own father was 40 when I was born in 1943, and I certainly have some of the personality traits associated with Asperger Syndrome.  I remember a filmmaker pointing this out to me at dinner right after he met me in 2003. 

Yes, Rosie O’Donnell made a big deal on ABC’s The View of a celebrity feud between Kelly Ripa and Clay Aiken after she made an insensitive remark on the air when Clay, in jest, put his hand over her mouth when he cohosted “Live With Regis and Kelly” on Nov. 17, 2006. Here is one account.

A documentary film related to all this is Autism Is a World (2004, CNN, dir. Gerardine Wurzburg, wr. Sue Rubin, 40 min, rec. PG) relates the life of (now) 26 year old college junior (Whittier College) Sue Rubin.  She was tested at one point in her life as having a mental age of 30 months, but when retested properly at Harvard she was found to have above average intelligence. Unable to speak clearly, she communicates on a typing machine (and presumably on a computer). Her appearance suggests disability; however many autistic children or teens have unremarkable appearance. She is always accompanied by an aide, friend or family member. Now autism is a huge topic, as evidenced by a family in Ohio with three autistic sons.  Sometimes autism is misdiagnosed, or it may be confused with a high-end functioning “Autistic Spectrum Disorder” or “Pervasive Development Disorder” called Asperger Syndrome (or Asperger’s Syndrome). Persons with Asperger Syndrome may tend to have unusual intellectual skills (chess, computer programming, music) which seem to “crowd out” other developmental skills like physical coordination and social communication. Often such persons adapt well enough to function well in jobs in which they work alone performing intellectual or artistic skills. As children, they may be subject to teasing which reinforces social isolation, or they may be perceived as not “paying their dues” in a world that requires some adaptive skills from everyone.

The classic movie dealing with autism was Rain Man (1988, MGM, dir. Barry Levinson, R, 133 min). Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is left little by his father but he finds out that he has an autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), who is quite an idiot savant, with unusual mathematical abilities. (The character Charlie Epps on CBS “Numb3rs” is quite well balanced socially, if a bit weird, by comparison.) His father kept the brother a secret all of his life. The film turns into a road movie, and Tom Cruise turns in one of his most passionate performances bringing his brother out of himself.

 The recommended website on autism is   Public schools must educate fully autistic students until age 22.

Autism Speaks: It’s Time to Listen (2009, 10 min) video showing autistic children.


Related videos on Asperger’s (relate to “Autism Is a World”) here.


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