Moraga singer, 27, with autism, performs at area assisted living facilities
By Lou Fancher
When Erin Spradley was 2 years old, she couldn't say a word, but she could sing ... perfectly.
Suzanne and Mark Spradley soon learned their now 27-year-old daughter had both perfect pitch and autism, a developmental disorder that impacts language and social skills. They wondered if she would ever speak. Never in their wildest imaginings did the Moraga couple envision Spradley, on a recent family vacation, winning first place in a singing contest.
But that is exactly what happened on a Princess Cruise Line trip from San Francisco to Alaska when Spradley pushed through three heats with 12 contestants to a standing ovation and blue ribbon finish.
"It was like she was a pop star," says her mother, about the post-show interviews and congratulatory comments from cruise passengers in the audience. "When she was first diagnosed, we weren't sure what was wrong. She would scream, but never point, so it was impossible to know what she wanted. But she was humming in the psychologist's office. He told us that if she could hum, she could talk."
Her father remembers his daughter listening to videotaped music and singing the melodies "so on key it was perfect."
Spradley learned sign language at lightening speed. Soon enough, with therapy, "cuh" became "cookie" and "juh" morphed into "juice." Her family, which includes Spradley's older sister, Rachael Spradley, 29, did what all families do when a child is born: they tailored their lives to support each other and soldiered on.
"School was hard, and we pulled her out of local schools and enrolled her in private schools in Alameda," her mother says.
With assistive programming, Spradley worked her way through high school as a special education student. She sang with her father in the Moraga Community Chorus and the Diablo Valley College choir. Help from the Regional Center of the East Bay connected the family to resources that continue to provide supervised outings and other forms of support.
But nothing has ever surpassed the transformative effect of a solid melody. While practicing with her mother, who accompanies her on the piano, Spradley also took private voice lessons for seven years with Marian Steinbergh before moving on to study with Victoria Rapanan, her current teacher. In the family home, invited to perform "Cry Me a River," Spradley launches soulfully into an understated rendition, complete with a saunter through the "audience" to interact.
"My mother told me to look at the audience with my very own eyes," Spradley says about her approach. Eye contact is often difficult for people with autism, and in conversation, her mind is sharply focused but her glances at another person's face are fleeting.
"The hardest part for other people to understand is the repetitive body language and social interaction," her mother says.
Spradley says she has learned not only a vast repertoire of jazz, pop and classical tunes, but to control her tendency to talk to herself or say socially inappropriate -- but truthful -- things to strangers.
"The good thing about autism is she treats everyone the same, regardless of their age, smell, appearance, intelligence, or disability," says her mother. "There's equal judgment for all."
Which makes Spradley's newfound employment, after her last job at a hardware store did not work out, the perfect fit. Performing with her mother on piano, Spradley provides on-site, 60-minute concerts at assisted-living and rehabilitation facilities, and for special events and parties. Averaging six-to-eight appearances per month, her mother says the independence and self-earned income has given her daughter a strong sense of pride.
Roxie Taylor, activities director at Courtyards at Pine Creek, an assisted living facility in Concord, says Spradley's every-second-Sunday visits are tremendously popular.
"All of our residents know they can count on her. It livens up the lobby with singalongs and the performance."
Spradley says learning a song is easy.
"I listen, maybe three times, then I just sing it."
Her favorite songs include "Think of Me" from "Phantom of the Opera;" "Light One Candle," and "Memories."
When she sings, she "gets happy." When she doesn't feel like practicing, she remembers, "If I don't practice, there's no outings. That means, I won't be lazy for singing."