Musician visits Boca students to raise awareness about autism

  • Faran Fagen
  • Special to The Palm Beach Post
12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018 Local
Guitarist Josef Pessah and Nick Orr play songs for students at Boca Raton’s Unicorn Village Academy, which specializes in studies for youth 13-22 with neurodiversity and hidden abilities.Contributed

First, they clapped. Then they stomped their feet. And when the chorus hit, the students chimed in. Together.

“We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine…”

The Beatles’ megahit was intended for children, but for the special needs students at Boca Raton’s Unicorn Village Academy huddled around vocalist Nick Orr, the song was more than a kids’ ballad. That moment, sitting in the grass, clapping and singing with a band’s lead singer and guitarist, symbolized the success those on the autism spectrum have achieved.

“It was an interesting experience to visit them and to give something back to the community,” said Orr, 21, the lead singer and drummer for his band, Nick Orr & The Spectrum. “It’s nice to know that the work we put in is being rewarded and that the students were happy with what we do along the way. And I hope that these kids are prepared to succeed in the real world in their careers and in life.”

Orr, of Coral Springs, is on the autism spectrum - thus the band’s unique name. He started playing drums when he was 4, and is now heads up his band on lead vocals and drums. He’s backed by Kyle Jones of Parkland (bass), Josef Pessah of Boca Raton (guitar) and Kyle Zindman of Delray Beach (guitar and bass). The band plays many different styles of music, ranging from Led Zeppelin (their specialty) to Janis Joplin, to today’s sounds like Bruno Mars. They’re a popular draw at Bull Bar in Delray Beach and Kahuna’s in Deerfield Beach.

Orr practices for an hour or two until he gets the rhythm and tempo right for each song.

In his social life, it took him a long time to learn how to have meaningful conversations (something many on the autism spectrum struggle with). This hindered his ability to make friends at times. But now, with practice and experience, he expresses himself through music and voice.

On Dec. 22, the last day before Unicorn Village Academy’s winter break, Orr and Pessah visited the school for kids ages 13-22 with neurodiversity and hidden abilities. The guys spent an hour with the students during the Field Day festivities, talking, answering questions and performing for the students.

“Our students made a connection to him and what he’s doing to inspire our students to go on to greater things,” said the school’s principal/director, Evelyn Falconer, of Boca Raton. “They were impressed by his success, and his talent.”

Ahead of Orr’s visit, Falconer went homeroom to homeroom, informing all her students about the special guest visiting them just before their winter vacation. That he was 21. That he was coming to share his success as a musician. And that he was on the autism spectrum. Just like some of them.

“I want all my audiences to know that I’m autistic because it’s part of who I am,” Orr said. “I want to raise autism awareness to show people that having a learning disability does not mean that they cannot excel and succeed in life.”

Unicorn Village Academy, part of the Unicorn’s Children’s Foundation, specializes in teaching both life skills and job skills to prepare its students to succeed in the real world.

For Falconer, Orr’s visit was a prime opportunity to raise autism awareness, much like the drummer’s goal for his band.

“Our goal is to prepare kids for life,” Falconer said. “Every time you turn around, there’s someone impacted by autism, and the successes that come with it.”

During Orr’s visit, most of the questions from the students were about music, not Orr himself. They were awed by the melodies he and Pessah produced.

The teachers were impressed too. They asked Falconer where they could catch the band’s next performance. The students have already bombarded their principal with requests for a return visit.

As for Orr, he’s a student himself, majoring in Business Marketing at Broward College. But his heart lies with his music. After graduation, he hopes to keep writing and record more original songs to keep his dream alive. And continue to inspire others like him.

“What I like most about being in the band is playing and singing a lot of songs with positive energy for my audiences,” Orr said.