Student Cellist with Profound Autism Speaks Through Music

Adam Mandela Walden, recently featured on NPR, finds understanding—and makes himself understood—within the musical community at Berklee.

April 20, 2023

“Having profound autism is a lot of hard work. I have to work very hard to talk to anyone about anything,” Adam Mandela Walden, cellist and performance major, told listeners on a recent episode of NPR’s From the Top after he performed the intermezzo from Goyescas. “I have autism-related epilepsy. I have 40-plus seizures every day. The good news is that I never have a seizure when I am playing music.”

The NPR show, which features young classically trained musicians every week, dedicated this episode to “celebrating and amplifying the voices of young disabled musicians.” Walden is the first Berklee student featured on the show, and the first student with profound autism to attend Berklee.

Walden read from a prepared statement—he is mostly unable to speak, and music has been his only fluent language since early childhood. “I remember when I could not say any words,” he said. “But I could sing.”

“The research suggests that Adam learns music the way typical people learn language,” said his mother, Rosanne Katon Walden, who helps Adam make his way through the world. Rosanne relocated with Adam to Boston from Los Angeles in order for him to attend Berklee.

John Escobar, associate professor of music production and engineering, also works for From the Top and helped with the audio technology for Walden’s episode. He was excited to see these two worlds—the music and disability communities—connect. “What was important about this particular show was not just the merging of the two worlds,” said Escobar. “But actually the fact that at Berklee, one of our diversity and inclusion initiatives is including people like Adam in our community.”

Escobar invited students from his production classes to assist on Walden's recording session, and he said they were “blown away” by Walden, his talent, and his story. “They said, ‘John, I never realized that we had students like that here at Berklee,’ meaning with those kinds of challenges,” said Escobar.

Watch Adam Mandela Walden perform with the Berklee World Strings ensemble:

A Unifying Language

Walden came to Berklee to study with cello professors Eugene Friesen and Natalie Haas. He is currently working with Friesen on a musical composition based on the 2016 book The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida. Escobar’s orchestral recording class recently recorded Friesan’s World Strings Ensemble performing the piece, with Walden at the lead. 

Rosanne felt the book was eye-opening for understanding how her son was experiencing the world. “One thing that's kind of hard is that since Adam only knows this existence, it's almost like it's by accident that he finds out that other people do things in a different way,” said Rosanne. She recalled once, riding an elevator in a building at Berklee with other students and faculty, the elevator made a strange "metal-on-metal" sound. Someone in the elevator said, "What’s that noise?" and Walden replied, “E-flat.”

But for all the ways that Walden sees and lives in the world differently, and all of the associated challenges, Rosanne said Berklee “deserves all of the credit” for everything they’ve done for him. She’s also grateful for the work of the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education, where Walden is a volunteer.

“There was a teacher in the very beginning, when it was a really bumpy road and no one knew if Adam was going to last a week, who said the most profound thing. We were sitting in a meeting trying to figure out what to do, and he said, 'I know Adam's problem. He knows all of the correct answers. He doesn't understand the question.' And it was like a light bulb went off. And we're like, okay, our goal is to find a way for Adam to understand the question,” said Rosanne.

She said she has many faculty members and administrators to thank for their hard work and creativity in instructing Walden, and she sees their journey as bigger than them.

“Everything they've done with Adam has informed how they deal with other people on the spectrum. Because if Berklee can accommodate Adam, every person on the spectrum, all the way up to the highest-functioning person, can be accommodated,” she said.

Escobar believes there is great value and humanity in Berklee stretching in this way. “One of the things that I'm hoping everybody's realizing with Adam is that music really is a language,” he said. “A unifying language.”

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