When Kirkland Leach was diagnosed with autism, doctors told his mother, Danielle Spencer, that her son would never be able to speak, let alone function on his own. Pop singer, it seemed, wasn't in the cards.
As a baby, Leach cried and screamed incessantly. His parents tried everything. When Leach was two, his father put a keyboard down and something clicked: The boy found peace.
After Leach's musical discovery there was little else he wanted to do. He would play for hours, sometimes refusing to stop even to eat. And while his mother noticed her son beginning to emerge from the casings of his afflictions, the behavioral problems persisted. Leach was kicked out of five schools by first grade. Certain words sent him into violent rages.
While Leach continued bouncing around programs and diagnoses (his condition is now thought to be closer to Asperger's), his mother worked tirelessly, trying everything from audio therapy (he hated it) to going vegetarian (he enjoys it). All the while, Leach found solace in music, and began to record himself singing and playing keyboards. He says he has recorded over 1,000 songs, a figure that his mother backs up.
At Children's Club, a non-profit for autistic kids, Leach's mother noticed Shane de Leon, a caregiver. She asked de Leon to work with Leach outside the club, though she couldn't have known just how perfectly the two were matched. De Leon is a longtime fixture on the Portland indie music scene. He plays with Miss Massive Snowflake and runs Northpole Records (home to Rollerball and Larry Yes). When he first met Leach—who knew nothing about de Leon or his interests—the seven-year-old gave him a tape, complete with hand-drawn cover. It blew de Leon away.
The relationship has become almost familial; they work on his behavior, but they also work on songs under the moniker Road Race. De Leon is preparing to release Leach's second album, The Adventures of Rocketboy and Egypt. It's sweet and simple pop music, populated mostly by a cast of heroes and villains in an alternate universe concocted by Leach. But there are, at times, moments of bittersweet melancholy, a look into the boy's scratched psyche.
Now nine, Leach has made incredible progress. He's coming into his own, both as a functioning person and an artist. Without music, however, there's no telling where he'd be.