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A song for autism

RAP MASTERCLASS: J-Rock visits some young musicians at an autism school in Radlett

A FACE from the UK music scene is set to make a comeback as part of a campaign to raise awareness about autism.

John Paul Horseley, better known as rapper J-Rock from MOBO award-winning group Big Brovaz, is reuniting with his old bandmates to re-release their 2002 hit, Baby Boy.

The track will be dedicated to the musician’s son, Richard-Michael, who was diagnosed with the life-long developmental disability, aged 18 months.

Horseley is now a committed autism champion dedicated to raising awareness of the condition within black and ethnic minority communities where there is still a lack of understanding about the condition, a spectrum disorder, which affects individuals differently.

Speaking exclusively to The Voice to share his experience of raising his seven-year-old son, the rapper recalled the moment his son was diagnosed.

Describing his son to be “on the severe side of the autism spectrum”, Horsley went on: “His vocabulary regressed, so he stopped speaking more and more as he grew up which was slightly frustrating, but when he got a diagnosis it all became clearer why this was happening.”

FATHER AND SON: J-Rock with son Richard-Michael as a baby

He added: “In our community where there isn’t a lot of knowledge on autism it’s very easy for someone to say ‘someone put juju on you’ or ‘this is some sort of curse’, but it obviously has nothing to with that; this is about genetics.”

According to the National Autism Society (NAS), part of the challenge for families affected by autism in BME communities is the fear of stigma.

Case studies where parents overlooked a diagnosis, choosing instead to view the condition as a ‘spiritual attack’, are not uncommon.

Prior to being diagnosed, Horsley admitted his parents had already confronted him to express their concerns over his son’s lack of development. “They would say ‘John, there’s something not quite right about Richard. He should be walking by now and saying more than just ‘mama’ and ‘dada’.”

A highly contentious area is the alleged correlation between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella immunisation (MMR) administered to children.

Horsley weighed in on the debate saying: “I don’t know if it’s anything to do with the MMR injections but I certainly noticed a difference after my son had it because he never quite recovered from the symptoms of the injection.”

ALL GROWN UP: Richard-Michael at six

Recalling a past marijuana habit which he documented as part of a 4oD documentary entitled Giving Up the Weed, the musician, who hasn’t smoked since 2006, admitted the thought had crossed his mind that his habit may somehow be to blame for his son’s condition.

“I did smoke weed at one point, it was public knowledge. I even thought at one point ‘did I do something to cause this?’ and the doctors can’t tell you yes or no.”

Richard, who attends a specialist school in Hackney, has, however, developed a keen ear for music.

Horsley said he felt optimistic about his son’s ability to function as an adult and enter the workplace. He continued: “I’m optimistic that he would want to follow in my footsteps but if he doesn’t, I have been preparing to be the type of parent who is ready to support him in whatever he wants to be.”

The arrival of a second son coincided with Richard’s diagnosis and also in the midst of a lucrative music deal. With the support of fellow Big Brovaz band mates Nadia Shepherd and Randy Jackson in whom he confided, in 2010 Horsley made the decision to walk away from the music industry until now.

He added: “I think it’s fair to say I was depressed, I wasn’t handling it really well. I was smiling everyday but inside I was broken.”

AS THEY WERE: Big Brovaz at the height of their fame

Looking ahead, the proud father of four beamed as he shared the milestones that his son had achieved.

“When you have an autistic child, particularly one that is non-verbal, the little things put a big smile on your face,” Horsley said. “I always tell him how much I love him and when he says ‘Daddy, I love you too’, for me, that is the thing that keeps me the most optimistic. Not only is he putting together a sentence as complex as that, it’s the fact that he knows what it means.”

Technology giants Microsoft recently announced it plans to create a pilot scheme aimed at increasing the number of adults with autism working in full-time roles.

Senior executive Mary Ellen Smith, who herself has a 19-year-old autistic son, said: “People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft."

Presently in the UK, just 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time employment according to the NAS. On Microsoft’s groundbreaking commitment, Horseley said: “I think what Microsoft is doing is awesome but I am also putting into place the everyday aids that would enable Richard to one day join me at work at my offices.”

The NAS also welcomed the move but said that other firms should do more to tap into the skills offered by many people with autism including revaluating the recruitment process.

“Simple adjustments, like making job interviews more accessible and providing support to help those in work understand the ‘unwritten rules' of the workplace can unlock the potential of a whole section of society," a spokesman said.

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