Rawan is the lead singer of a new Canadian band called ASD, but she’s unique among vocalists: her verbal skills are limited when she’s not in front of a microphone. She didn’t speak at all during her first four years, and her parents worried she might be hearing impaired.
Then one day, out of nowhere, she began humming Celine Dion’s hit song “My heart will go on” from the Titanic soundtrack. Encouraged by this new development, her parents took her to a music therapist, and she began adding Disney songs to her repertoire.
Rawan, who is autistic, still has difficulty communicating with others when she’s not singing. But in Studio A at Metalworks, a Mississauga, Ont. recording studio that has hosted musical mega-stars including Drake, Prince and Bruce Springsteen, her daily life on the spectrum was temporarily forgotten as she tore into Sonny & Cher’s 1965 hit “I got you babe” with gusto.
“She really has a gift,” says Dave Bodanis, a father of three sons—two of whom are on the spectrum—who co-founded the national autism charity Jake’s House with his wife Irene in 2004. “Her communication might be a little bit challenged, but man can this girl sing.”
An acronym for Autism Spectrum Disorder, the term used to describe people with autism, ASD the band is a new fundraising campaign for Jake’s House developed by Edelman Canada. Timed to coincide with Canadian Autism Awareness month, it is the brainchild of Edelman’s chief creative officer Andrew Simon, who has volunteered with the charity for the past several years and currently sits on its board.
The ASD band is comprised of five core members, all of whom are living with autism. In addition to Rawan there is Ron (keyboards), Spenser (drums), Robbie (vocals) and Jackson (guitar). Together, they have recorded versions of three well-known songs—”I got you babe,” Diana Ross’ (or Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell if you’re a purist) “Ain’t no mountain high enough” and Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches”—to raise awareness and funds for Jake’s House.
All three of ASD’s songs are currently available on major streaming services, and Jake’s House has also created a stylish black-and-white video for “I got you babe” (shot by John Tran, an award-winning cinematographer who has worked on commercials for Coca-Cola, Scotiabank and Canadian Blood Services) that it is pushing out through socials channels like YouTube ahead of planned outreach to corporate donors.
“There are places where autistic individuals excel, and music is definitely one of them,” says Simon. While the scientific community generally regards it as an “alternative” therapy, some studies have shown that music therapy can have a positive impact on everything from emotional engagement, social interaction, communication and parent-child relationships among people on the spectrum.
The concept for ASD, says Simon, was rooted in a simple idea specifically designed to pique people’s interest: an all-autistic band that becomes a part of popular culture.
Its origins lie in a 2019 musical fundraiser featuring former Supertramp singer Roger Hodgson, who invited Rawan and other future band members to join him on-stage at Toronto’s Meridian Hall to perform a version of the band’s well-known song “Give a little bit.”
That partnership with Hodgson gave Jake’s House far more than just a little bit: donations to the charity topped $1.5 million in the wake of the event, way outpacing the organization’s original target of $1 million.
After that, Bodanis wanted to know what they could do next. “I said ‘We’re going to take some of the performers that played with Roger and we’re going to create our own band,'” says Simon. “It’s about the universal power of music.”
The original plan was to stage a concert at Toronto concert venue the Mod Club. It was scheduled for April 2, World Autism Awareness Day. But like countless other fundraisers this year, those plans were ruined by the pandemic.
But at least they still had the songs. Simon enlisted Pirate Toronto partner Chris Tait, a frequent collaborator whose LinkedIn bio lists his education as a Bachelor of Rock, and his skills as music composition, track direction and audio production “across any and all media everywhere throughout the universe so help me God,” and Ari Posner, a fixture in Canadian film and TV who has scored series including the CBC/Netflix production Anne and the CTV drama Flashpoint, to work up arrangements for the songs. They were mixed by Keith Ohman, a senior engineer at Pirate.
Simon also brought aboard Scott Marshall, an acclaimed musician and teacher at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory who had worked with the band members prior to their on-stage performance with Hodgson, to help them learn the songs in advance of a planned recording session.
He also took advantage of Edelman’s global network to solicit contributions from people on the spectrum all around the world. People from 11 different countries, including Uruguay and Pakistan, contributed everything from handclaps to finger-snaps to the video, while a graphic designer in the U.K designed the band’s logo, which is imprinted on merchandise including stickers, ball-caps and t-shirts.
“[T]he most amazing thing about collaborating with the U.K. designer was that we had so many great email exchanges,” says Simon. “It wasn’t until the end of the project, when I asked him for some video footage of him working on the logo, that he told me he was non-verbal.”
ASD is an example of the increasingly sophisticated work being produced by PR agencies as they expand their creative firepower, developing the type of programs they might once have been restricted to merely amplifying and publicizing.
In many cases, these efforts are being led by a wave of former creatives have left traditional creative shops to pursue roles in everything from PR to media. Simon himself spent the early part of his career working at network agencies like JWT and DDB before joining Edelman as CD five years ago, becoming CCO less than a year later.
“I come from the world of advertising and I have a lot of respect for that world,” he says. “But sometimes if we look at things as ‘What are the ads that we’re going to create?’ we’re not doing justice to ideas. Sometimes it takes a more holistic viewpoint.
“What my five years at Edelman has helped me with is looking at things more holistically to the other aspects, like how the idea can show up in other places to ultimately help the charity, raise awareness and raise funds.”
Today, an estimated one in 66 Canadian children are diagnosed with autism (up from one in 10,000 in the 1980s), making it one of the country’s most common development disabilities. While the presence and severity of autism symptoms can vary significantly from person to person, there are some common traits such as problems with social interaction, empathy, communication and flexible behaviour.
One of the main issues for people on the spectrum is loneliness and social isolation, but during a joyful 12-hour recording session at Metalwork in September, Simon witnessed the members of ASD unite around the common language of music.
“It was just a wonderful experience for them,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you speak a different language, you speak music. The joy that people get from music is palpable.”
“There’s so much bad news out there, and watching that video for four minutes is just good for your soul,” adds Bodanis. “We thought ‘Let’s just put it out there with no expectations.’ We know it’s a good idea, and time’s on our side.”
Edelman and Jake’s House will release videos for the other two songs this month, with the video for “Stitches” dropping on Oct. 16, followed the next week by “Ain’t no mountain high enough.”
And Simon is adamant that Jake’s House’s ASD program will continue to evolve and grow. “One thing that drives me crazy is the one-and-done kind of campaigns, but this is not going anywhere,” he says. “We’re going to keep having fun with it and involve other people.”
In other words, it’s much more than a simple band-aid solution.