TPExtra: Watch a video clip of Cathleen Lewis and Rex Lewis-Clack
Conversation: Cathleen Lewis
He’s more than a musician
Rex Lewis-Clack, 13, is a musical savant — he is also
blind and autistic. Born with sound and touch aversions, noises such as running
water used to make him scream. But after receiving a keyboard for his second
birthday, Rex began exposing a dynamic musical gift where he can hear a
classical piece of music once and then play it back note for note. Cathleen
Lewis, Rex’s mother, stands in awe of her son’s gifts and says she has seen
glimpses of God because of them. Recently, she spoke with Managing Editor Kirk
Noonan about her book, Rex: A Mother, Her Autistic Child, and the Music That
Transformed Their Lives (2008, Thomas Nelson).
tpe: Rex has garnered a lot of attention because of his
musical abilities — what else about him captivates you?
LEWIS: The most incredible thing about him is the inner joy
that lights up his personality. I always tell people who want to hear his music
that they need to see the boy first because the music is only one part of the
tpe: You’re a single mom determined to give your son as
normal an upbringing as possible. How have you done that?
LEWIS: From the beginning I’ve gone to great lengths to take
him into the world as much as possible. I also understood early on that he was
not going to develop as a typical child, so I plunged into his world. By doing
both we’ve been drawn closer. We’re best friends who love each other and have
so much fun together.
tpe: The end of your marriage to Rex’s father nearly
coincides with a spiritual awakening in you. Could you talk about that?
LEWIS: When my marriage fell apart, I was shattered and
almost had a nervous breakdown. Back then, Rex didn’t sleep for more than two
hours at a stretch, which meant I didn’t sleep for more than two hours at a
time. I think I was running on pure adrenaline. But all of that brought me to a
realization that I couldn’t do it on my own.
tpe: What changed your situation?
LEWIS: I was falling apart and started thinking about
spiritual things. A babysitter I had hired had spoken to me about church. I
knew she went and she was very loving, but it wasn’t until my brother visited
that things really changed in my life.
tpe: What happened?
LEWIS: My daily existence was like being a prisoner who had
to watch her son get tortured by everyday things like the turning on of a light
or the sound of running water. He was so sensitive to such things. I couldn’t
figure out why he would be obliged to live such a life, so at the end of my
rope I blurted out, “What’s all this for?”
My brother quickly responded, “It’s to glorify God.”
He then shared with me his new faith in Jesus Christ. There
was a calm in his being, and he told me it would probably help me to go to
church. So I did.
tpe: What happened at church?
LEWIS: At first I was terrified about going into a church
because Rex would make strange sounds. But when I entered the church the usher
told me not to worry because they were used to having kids there and could
handle them. I remember that feeling of peace.
When we left the sanctuary after the service people were
fellowshipping on the patio. The pastor’s wife came over and introduced me to
other people. I got the impression that there was no way I was going to get out
of that facility until they were sure I was returning. That Sunday a woman told
me about a Bible study she was holding at her house. I went and was immediately
tpe: How did learning about Jesus change your life?
LEWIS: The message of the gospel I was getting in church and
at Bible study gave me a sense of calm and purpose. It was like the knots in my
stomach were being undone.
tpe: When Rex first touched a keyboard, you say something
LEWIS: The minute he touched those keys his face had a look
of wonder I had never seen from him.
tpe: Describe autism.
LEWIS: It’s a brain that processes things in a rigid and
selective manner that is not normal. Many people with autism are hyperfocused
on some things and underfocused on other things.
tpe: How did you know Rex had autism?
LEWIS: One of his teachers said she thought he had it when
he was 18 months old. I didn’t accept it. I thought the defining criterion for
autism was if the child could not have a close, social connection with others.
But Rex and I had a strong connection. I have since come to find out that was
just one of many behaviors of autism.
tpe: What are some of Rex’s autistic symptoms?
LEWIS: He can’t sustain or start a conversation. A lot of
people like Rex have trouble understanding the pragmatics of conversations. He
has trouble after two exchanges, so we have some scripted answers because he
does not always know exactly what an appropriate response should be. The
communication and social skills go hand in hand. Rex loves people, but doesn’t
always empathize with people he meets.
tpe: How is day-to-day living different for Rex than a
13-year-old without autism?
LEWIS: It’s hard for someone with autism to accept change or
newness. When Rex was younger, little changes like the way I parked the car
caused him to scream. Or, if we were leaving his school and I stopped to talk
to someone and it cut into his pace of departure, he would scream. He’s not
like that now because his brain has become much more flexible.
tpe: How did the music transform Rex’s life?
LEWIS: The music and playing the piano have helped
restructure his brain. Music has created areas of creativity in his mind and
given him his own little world to grow in. When he is at the piano and hears
sounds that normally bother him, he does not even seem to hear them. Music has
become the counterbalance to his autism. It provides a safe place where the
realities of his world are pushed back.
tpe: What are some of the practical ways music has improved
LEWIS: I once thought Rex might never talk or walk. Now he does
tpe: You mentioned earlier that you made it a habit to get
Rex out and about. Has music broadened those horizons even more?
LEWIS: We never went anywhere overnight before he started
playing the piano. Now we travel all over the world and have been to Japan,
Germany, London and Paris for him to perform.
tpe: What can Rex do that makes him a savant?
LEWIS: He can hear a piece of complex music one time and
pretty much play it back verbatim. He can also transpose any song into another
tpe: When you hear Rex play the piano, what does that tell
you about God?
LEWIS: That He is amazing. God is capable of anything and
has a great sense of irony. He is loving, and it’s just incredible to see the
work He is doing in Rex’s life and in mine. Because of it, I know He is capable
of doing similar work in other people’s lives.
tpe: What encouragement would you give a single parent who
is feeling overwhelmed with the demands of raising children?
LEWIS: I would recommend that if single parents are not
going to church that they start going. And they need to remember there is a
beauty in the lives of our children that may not be apparent right this
instant, but children mature and evolve and things will get easier over time.
tpe: What is a practical thing a single parent — or
any parent — can do to be a better parent?
LEWIS: Get rest. Raising a child is a team effort where the
child is not more important than the parent. The child needs his or her mother
or father rested and refreshed.
tpe: Despite the challenges you face daily you seem happy,
content and even satisfied with how your life has turned out. How did you get
to such a place?
LEWIS: Rex has changed my life in so many good ways. God
gives us things we need and want even if we don’t have the courage to ask for
such things. Raising Rex has been the most amazing thing. I feel so honored to
have such a beautiful boy. It is a privilege for me to be able to spend my days
with someone who fills my heart with joy.