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How a Dallas DJ and a speech pathologist developed a new spin on helping neurodiverse children navigate a neurotypical world

Dallas nonprofit Spin the Spectrum combines the art of DJing and the science of speech pathology to develop communication skills among neurodiverse populations

DALLAS — Jason Straughter has music running through his veins. 

The DJ, who works under the name of Jay*Clipp, says that, at given any moment of the day, he's either listening to music or making it.

"Music is life to me," he says. 

Jay*Clipp has been a professional DJ since 1996. And he's got some notable skins on the wall in that world, too, having traveled around the world  and performed gigs alongside the likes of Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Dave Chappelle, and Spinderella.

But, despite all that star power, Jay*Clipp says the work he's been putting in the last few years with a friend of his just might be the most fulfilling thing he's ever done in his career.

That friend, Courtney Willis, isn't a performer at all. Rather, she's a speech language pathologist. And she's been spinning around a theory of her own of late -- that music and language are parallel to each other, and that they activate the brain in positive ways.

That idea came to Willis when she, Jay*Clipp and a few others traveled with a nonprofit to Lagos, Nigeria, in 2013 for World Autism Day. The work they did there spawned their desire to do similar work here their home country, and specifically so in their home city of Dallas.

"[We thought] let's see if there's a way we can merge what you do and what I do into something cool," says Jay*Clipp, who had already launched a DJ school here in North Texas called the Keep Spinning DJ Academy.

Now, he and Willis run a nonprofit offshoot of the Keep Spinning DJ Academy called Spin the Spectrum that, per its website, aims to provide "inclusive DJ education, camps and classes aimed at teaching marketable skills to increase opportunities for employment and inclusion in neurotypical society."

Through Spin the Spectrum, the pair works with around 12 students two days a week. They sit in on the one-hour sessions together, utilizing both of their know-hows to tailor their classes to each individual student.

"If you've seen one person on the spectrum you've seen... one person on the spectrum," says Willis.  

For Jay*Clipp and Willis, the opportunity to work with neurodiverse students is a special treat. Willis tells WFAA that, for children who use their brains differently the patterns, the twists and the turns that arise in the songs they learn to manipulate through turntables can be a soothing thing. Having control of the turntables, meanwhile, can be liberating.

"There was just one session where we just wept the whole session," says Willis. 

"To see it actually unfolding, I was like., 'Wow, it just blew me away!'" says Jay*Clipp.

Their not the only ones whose worldviews are being changed through Spin the Spectrum's offerings.

Jonathan Carter has been bringing his son Sam to the school for sessions for a while now. 

"He listens to music all day long," Carter says of one way in which the classes have changed his son. 

But there have been other breakthroughs from this therapy as well. 

Sam, like his fellow students, processes the world differently than most. His dad says that, before coming to Spin the Spectrum, Sam used to only communicate when prompted. These days, he texts his parents full messages using lyrics and timestamps from  songs that are appropriate to the conversations. 

"He's finding moments in the songs," Carter says. "He's telling us [that] he can start sharing things with us."

Receiving those messages was a major moment for the Carters -- and they're all thankful for the hour-long classes during which Sam gets to work the turntables alongside Jay*Clipp and Willis.

But how Sam experiences Spin the Spectrum isn't necessarily the way others might. Each class is different. Sometimes the students come to the sessions prepared with the songs they want to manipulate. Other times, they just go along with whatever beat Jay*Clipp serves up.

The one constant in the classes here -- as in Jay*Clipp's life, too -- is music.

"A beat is a predictable routine," Willis says. "Any time you create a predictable routine, you decrease the cognitive load being placed on your brain."

Soon, Willis hopes to find an academic group to study what's happening in Spin the Spectrum's sessions. Because she believes something special is happening in these intimate sessions.  

In the meantime, though, she and Jay*Clipp are plenty pleased with the developments they're seeing firsthand -- the remarkable growth that the teachers, parents and students involved can all see, as well as hear.

It's that part of what Spin the Spectrum does that's music to everyone's ears.

Says Willis: "You get the opportunity to be somebody's very first friend most of the time."

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