In 2019, 21-year-old Sid Suryanarayana spent his days milling through therapies and special and vocational programs. He was an adult living with autism spectrum disorder, and, with his family’s support, Sid had become conversational, graduated high school on a modified curriculum, and was developing life skills through The Notre Dame School of Dallas’ STAR adult program. However, when asked, “What do you want to be,” Sid never quite knew how to answer—until he went to his first school dance.
It was “Happy Dance Day,” recalls his mother, Rekha Suryanarayana. Sid’s teacher Mr. Daniel was the DJ for the event. Sid meticulously watched Mr. Daniel—or DJ Daniel as Sid calls him—set up the deck, pull out records, and place them on the turntable. Mr. Daniel invigorated the crowd with “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins and “Wobble” by V.I.C. Sid was enthralled.
“He started to call anybody that’s cool a DJ and he was literally talking about it all the time,” Rekha says.
DJing became Sid’s first passion, and his mother wanted to fuel it. He needed something leisurely that he could have as a hobby. But options were limited. Dallas had DJ schools, but none that were equipped to teach individuals on the autism spectrum.
“We were really on the lookout for something that would be fun for him that he would want to do, but it is so hard to find the right people who can help it because he does have extra needs,” Rekha says. “He does need steps to be broken down for him. He does need somebody that understands his unique learning style, so we couldn’t just send him to any old program.”
Sid’s opportunity to get behind the deck came in January 2022 when nonprofit Spin the Spectrum opened its doors. Founded by speech pathologist Courtney Willis and multi-hyphenate Jay Straughter (known by his stage name, Jay Clipp), Spin the Spectrum is the nation’s first and only DJ school specializing in neurodivergent children and adults.
Through DJ and music production instruction, Spin the Spectrum offers vocational programming to students of all ages and all levels. Classes are customized to individual needs with a two-to-one instructor-student ratio. Each student gets instruction directly from Straughter—who has worked with artists such as Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Dave Chappelle, and Spinderella—and Willis—who specializes in social communication disorders. Inclusivity is central to Spin the Spectrum’s ethos.
“At Spin the Spectrum, you don’t have to pass any kind of test. You don’t have to be at any level,” Willis says. “There’s no such thing as a kid that’s too this or too that to learn how to DJ. If they want to do this, then we’re going to figure out a way to teach them.”
Willis says the parallel neurological development between language and music make DJing well suited for neurodivergent individuals. The repetitive sounds, technology, and social norms associated with profession allow for individuals to integrate into social settings while maintaining regulation.
The program’s intake process begins with a consultation with parents and individuals. Goals are outlined, and an approach that aligns with the students’ brain processes is curated. Through these consultations, Willis and Straughter develop custom support for the experience. That support can take form as visuals, specific vocabulary, social stories, or any presentation required to help the student to achieve maximum success.
Around 30 students—the youngest being 5 years old—have participated in the program since it opened earlier this year. Willis estimated that the school has an 80-percent return rate. Much of that success can be attributed to recreational nature of the program and the bonds students develop with Straughter and Willis.
“We’re literally the only people on planet earth that are doing this,” Willis says. “It’s not something that somebody just off the street could do. You have to have an education and a background in this to be able to do it.”
Spin the Spectrum is housed at Willis’ practice, Speech Wings Therapy. Some students have participated in both programs. Willis has witnessed these students navigate life from the sidelines with the weight of their communication disorders, but when they walk into DJ school, that weight is lifted.
“They have found a way to not feel different. For that period in time, and with this thing that they can do, they are not different,” she says.
The turntable allows students true autonomy and self expression, a rarity allotted to neurodivergent individuals. Gratitude is expressed through joy.
“We haven’t been approached with a student we have not been able to make smile,” Straughter says. “You can’t say that they came in smiling, but at some point, they smile because they were overcome with the joy of being able to do something cool.”
For Sid, DJ school is a social release. It is the highlight of his week. He works his schedule around going DJ school to ensure that he gets the opportunity to learn from “DJ Clipp” and spin his favorite song—“Wobble”—himself.
“DJ Clipp—he’s hilarious, he’s cool, he’s nice, and he’s really talkative,” Sid says. “And he smiles a lot.”
For Sid, the crowning title of DJ is synonymous with friend. Straughter, who does not use DJ in his stage name as a nod to his multiple endeavors, makes an exception for Sid.
“He’s someone who’s so driven by the art of what I do, the profession. I’m able to share that with other people [through Spin the Spectrum]. I can’t even put into words truly how amazing it makes me feel,” Straughter says.
Students in the program have displayed gains far beyond a DJ skillset. Willis says she’s seen students make strides in reading comprehension, social interaction initiation, emotional regulation, executive function, sequencing, and describing events. Both nonverbal and verbal communication has increased in some students, too.
“Music, especially as a DJ, is communication,” Willis says. “I’ve watched lesson after lesson, when Jay works with the kids, a true communication back and forth between the two of them, even if no language is expressed. You don’t have to speak to be able to do this.”