That Autism is a Gift
The Story of Kaylee Rogers and the Killard House School
By Jennae Geren
I once heard that coming into this life with autism is like rolling up in a Ford Model T body with a Ferrari engine – each one equipped with particular spark under its hood. And if you could somehow figure out how to rig the wires right, it could outshine any other model.
Every spark is different, but one, in particular, caught my eye. She was only 10 when I first saw her in a video singing “Hallelujah” two years ago with her school choir around Christmas. There she was, in her navy blue Irish school uniform, standing front and center on stage singing like an angel in a kind of trance.
“It happened at the right time as the world was a mess,” her music teacher Lloyd Scates told me of the video featuring Kaylee Rogers, a 12-year-old girl with autism from Northern Ireland, that had unintentionally gained worldwide momentum with millions of viewers and launched her singing career.
There was an angelic pureness to Kaylee that magnetized people, and they clung to her innocence at the close of such a turbulent year.
2016 was a noisy nightmarish year if you can remember, full of corporate scandals, open fire shootings, economic divide, terrorism, earthquakes, nuclear tension, and political protests. It seemed everyone who I talked to was experiencing some kind of personal upheaval. In a world that seemed have gone sour, here was this little angel, who made grown men cry.
I knew I had to learn more about her, so I packed my bag and traveled 4,400 miles half the world away across the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Donaghadee, a small seaside town in Northern Ireland 30 minutes outside Belfast.
Looking back on the trip now, I understand why no American journalist has ventured that far to cover the singing sensation. My journey launched at 5 a.m. in the U.S. and ended at the brutal rush of dawn just before 9 a.m. in Ireland. My days and nights were flipped.
“You’re going to Donagh-what?” the Dublin airport staff had laughed at me, and after a few failed attempts, I decided to tell people I was simply heading to Belfast. The spot on the map where I was going was too small, around too many other cities, too far away.
Through the blurry blackness of the night, the bus sped down route 705x from the Dublin Airport towards Belfast, and I saw through the rain-splattered windows the Ireland I had always heard about: rolling hills that stretched for miles, large brick houses, sheep grazing in pastures enclosed by cobblestone fences, and the greenest grass and trees that would make any retired senior citizen who stood with a hose in hand watering their front lawn envious.
I finally busted through the hotel’s front doors at sunrise looking delirious. The staff swooped in and comfortingly led me to a table by the fire until my room upstairs was ready. The mood in the hotel was bright and cozy, with the smell of coffee and French toast, and as I waited there, in walked a local man who plunked down at the table in front of me with his laptop.
When he heard me speak, his eyelids lifted and he leaned forward. “You are American? What brings you here?”
I never thought of Americans as having accents, but I found his reaction would be just like all the other Irish locals when they hear an American speak – they recognize it right away – like a bowling ball striking all the vowels.
“My name is Bahreh,” another local young man named Barry later in my trip had introduced himself. “Bare-ee?” I asked him, and he tried to correct me then imitate me in a nasally flat drawl, that still fell short of emphasizing the long e.
“You all sound like Yankees; Confederate rebel southerners,” another Irish man told me, and I had no idea what he meant. I preferred the way the Irish people talked – usually rapidly, and without any of the annoying filled pauses that Americans use, such as “like.”
“I’m here for research and to feature Kaylee Rogers and the Killard House School in a story,” I told the local man, and his eyes lit up in recognition. We talked for the rest of the time until my room was ready mostly about Ireland, the U.S., various other countries, and politics, and I realized that was the first time in a long time I had talked so long with a random person. I later found this would be an everyday occurrence on my trip and why I fell in love with the warmth and sincerity of the Irish people.
Donaghadee is the hidden city so many have searched for but few have claimed as their home, preserved at first glance in an almost storybook-like innocence, backdropped against rocky shores. The food is fresh and local, the houses stand tall and dignified, and the town’s outstretched paths along the ocean provide park areas and large grassy fields where I would see children playing and dogs chasing Frisbees. I never had to use my GPS. The school was just up the hill, the lighthouse over to the right – the restaurant just down the street. The longer I stayed the more I could see why Kaylee’s mother Tracy, an American, who landed here on Valentine’s Day with her husband Neil some 17 years ago never looked back.
As soon as my room was ready, I jolted upstairs, exhilarated at the thought of sleep. A storm had hit that morning, and I could hear the roar of the ocean just steps from my hotel room. My mind was spinning and I thought about Kaylee, who was probably just starting school before I fell into a deep sleep of what felt like a million dreams, as the sound of the waves wrapped the images and thoughts of my long journey farther and farther away until they faded into just another dream.
I woke up (for the second time) long before sunrise to the sound of crashing waves, and for a minute forgot where I was. Seven hours earlier in the U.S., people were just going to bed, but I vowed to adjust – I was ready to explore this Irish world, and that day I was meeting Kaylee after school.
At the age of 12, Kaylee Rogers is described by headlines around the world as the gifted girl with autism with the voice of an angel, but not much has changed in the Rogers house. She still goes straight home from school every weekday, slips into her onesie and plays with her American girl dolls while listening to the musical Mamma Mia 2. Kaylee, I learned, is completely unaware of her visibility.
I met Kaylee and her mother Tracy that afternoon for the first time in person at a dimly-lit booth in the back of the hotel’s restaurant. Kaylee had come straight out of school, still donning her school uniform, a black Killard House School engraved blazer over a collared shirt and striped tie poking out from her yellow winter coat.
Tracy, whose homeland is America, looks more like a fashionable passer-by on the boardwalk of California’s Venice Beach, with her long golden hair and tanned skin, rather than the townsfolk one would imagine on a cloudy, Northern Ireland island. She has a broad white smile and speaks with clear annunciation, the tips of her words spiked only slightly with a subtle Irish accent due to 17 years in Donaghadee, something I found refreshing after asking so many of the Irish people to repeat themselves (who by then had likely deemed me a simpleton).
Just before sitting down Tracy bent down towards Kaylee and said softly, “This is Jennae, you can trust her,” and Kaylee gave me a shy glance before settling into the booth.
I watched Kaylee peer at me cautiously, and I wondered if the realization was settling in that she was here for more than just a plate of mussels. She leaned tightly into her mom, but after a few minutes of conversation, completely loosened her grip. When I asked Kaylee about her Victorian American Girl doll Samantha, who could be her twin – ivory skin, large dark brown eyes, round high cheeks, and an identical fringe, and then the Broadway musical Wicked, she beamed.
Her voice was tiny and high-pitched, and she briefed me on the musical Wicked, a prequel to the Wizard of Oz:
“It’s about these two witches Glenda and Elphaba who become best friends. One of them wants to be good and the other one wants to be bad…”
I observed Kaylee’s face light up as she gained energy and speed in her storytelling.
“Glenda was her best friend. She was very popular at the school they went to together, the college, and she had high heels and everything on…”
Hours before I met Kaylee, I changed some of my interview questions after speaking with her mother. I learned Kaylee has no interest in lapping in fame – only the music. She sees herself one day as a recording artist and, with the guidance and protection of her faith, family, and Killard, performing on the big stages of America’s Broadway or London’s West End. But it’s the music that pulls her, not the fame. She has no interest in watching herself on TV or reviewing past interviews – she’s been there, done that, no need to revisit.
“Why does that little girl have such a grown-up voice?” my five-year-old son had asked me after I played a music video for him of Kaylee called “This is Me,” where she leads her Killard House School classmates through its hallways and classrooms and out its open doors while belting, “I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me…” in a voice more akin to a 30-year-old woman than a 12-year old girl.
The confident and theatrical girl in the video was clearly not the little schoolgirl seated in front of me.
“It’s just amazing,” Kaylee continued, on the musical Wicked, “The girl comes up on the big stage and belts it out…” and I realized this is what Kaylee does.
Two days later I found myself upstairs in the teacher’s lounge at Kaylee’s school, Killard House School, sipping coffee and tea alongside the staff on their morning break.
“She’s still very quiet in class,” all the teachers had said of Kaylee, eyeing me curiously, before shifting the conversation to American destinations and who had been where. The fact that I was there was a glaring reminder that although nothing much had changed at Killard, the rest of the world had caught on.
The same day I witnessed Kaylee singing downstairs on Killard’s gymnasium stage leading the choir with “Hallelujah,” loudly, eyes closed, swaying in the front of the stage, lost in the music, and I was reminded once again that this Kaylee was not the same Kaylee that I met in the back of the restaurant.
Then the song abruptly ended, she exited the stage and that Kaylee was gone; just like at every other performance where she immediately retreats home and jumps into her onesie, never to emerge again until the music plays.
The last time I saw Kaylee, two days later, she dipped into her alter-character. A storm erupted just moments before our photoshoot, pelting Donaghadee in heavy rain and vicious winds that sent the townspeople scurrying indoors. By the time Kaylee pushed open the hotel’s heavy oak doors, the rain had miraculously died down to a soft dribble, although the air still carried an uncomfortable icy breeze. Still, she willingly followed me outdoors, all around the lighthouse and grassy cliffs overlooking the ocean, coat-free, teeth chattering, hair flying wildly in the wind.
As I raised my camera, she relaxed her face into a graceful grin, transitioning neatly into soft poses. I nearly dropped my camera and laughed out loud. In my 10-year career of portrait photography, here was a 12-year-old girl effortlessly displaying the gestures I had relentlessly pushed my clients five times her age to do.
The only other person I had seen do this almost as fluidly during a photo shoot was a fashionable gay man. “What are you doing?” I had asked him, popping my head away from the camera, squinting. He was slightly re-angling himself every few seconds. Chin up, down, head left, right. His eyes had turned to confident slits as he raised his chin. “Oh, I watch a lot of America’s Top Model,” he sighed.
“Could it be,” I would often wonder, “that this immersion into this mature theatrical character is wired back to an artistic asset of Kaylee’s autism?”
“If she sings, ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked she becomes Elphaba on stage. When she sings Annie songs she becomes the character – Kaylee’s always done that,” said Tracy.
“We’ve always let her go since she was a little girl. I love that Kaylee can escape and go into her own little world in her head – almost like when we were five and we weren’t even looking to see who was watching us dance. Kaylee can keep that as she grows up.”
“What was she like?” people would ask me of Kaylee after I returned home to the U.S. “Was her autism obvious?” “Did she seem different?”
I didn’t really know what to tell people. Talking to Kaylee is like talking to, say, your niece, I thought. She is polite, her tiny voice coated with a lot of ‘lovely’s;’ a word that all the Irish use frequently, equivalent to America’s ‘cool.’ I am convinced her innocent, somewhat sheltered responses are a reflection of her protective tribe who she has also formed deep attachments to, particularly her music teacher Lloyd Scates, her singing coach Katie McKeown, her parents, and 21-month younger brother Noah.
But my time with Kaylee was mere hours so I must reserve the autism analysis to her parents. I only know that every person I interviewed in Donaghadee viewed Kaylee’s autism not as a barrier, but a gift.
“Do you remember when we talked about it?” Tracy leaned into Kaylee and asked her softly. Kaylee stared forward and shook her head.
“I never really talked about it until last few years. You asked a question and I just said, ‘It is something that is so special within someone…’”
Tracy then turned to me, aware of her daughter’s acute attention, and said, “She has really special talents like Mark Twain and all those types of people…and I’ve always been very passive about it.”
Kaylee listened intently as her mother continued.
“Most people with autism are like geniuses. They’re extremely talented at things like art, music, or math. We all have our setbacks and there can be meltdowns with autism,” she added quickly. “But we always concentrate on all the blessings – and also not to judge others. That’s the lovely thing. There’s not a lot of judgment. When someone has autism, they see things plain and simple. There’s black and white – no grey area.”
There’s one thing about Kaylee that I always wanted to know ever since I first saw her sing. This zone that she gets in, when she’s on stage singing, what is going on through her head? Her transformation from a demure school girl to a confident stage singer fascinated me. So I asked her.
“I pretend that everybody’s in their underwear,” Kaylee said so abruptly and matter-of-factly, that we all couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
“When I hear her sing I just well up in tears,” Tracy said, looking adoringly at Kaylee, and then, turned to me giggling.
“And I joke with my mom, ‘How is she my child?’ She’s like the chosen one.”
I later learned that Kaylee is not only a talented singer but a talented artist as well – and her school’s number one in cross-country and the high jump.
“We were at an event in Bangor, watching Kaylee compete for the high jump,” her father Neil had told me when I met up with him and Tracy the next day.
“…and she sailed over the bar!” Tracy finished. “We were like, ‘Is there anything this girl can’t do?’” she said, choking with laughter.
“But you see, with Kaylee it’s all matter of fact,” Neil said. “She doesn’t care. What she wanted to do is tear over the bar. And she’d done it. Her attitude is, ‘Ope, well I’ve done that!’ and she moves on to the next thing.’” There was no basking in glory with Kaylee.
We both shook with laughter until tears brimmed Tracy’s eyes.
By now, Kaylee had received her platter of mussels and was focused solely on each steaming bite, the empty shells piling quickly.
“You have to know my mom’s sense of humor,” Tracy said, still laughing, and we quickly agreed why people worldwide are drawn to Kaylee beyond her voice.
It’s her honesty and her integrity. She’s so angelic and pure,” said Tracy. “There is nothing fake about Kaylee. When Kaylee speaks or Kaylee sings she’s full of love.”
Kaylee Rogers was born naturally on a blooming Irish spring afternoon, “fast like whippet” as the Irish would say. The long-awaited day of motherhood had arrived, and as Kaylee gazed up at Tracy with those deep brown eyes, for a moment, Tracy’s world was utterly still.
The words, “All I ever wanted to do is be a mom,” were said by Tracy many times to me, and I wondered, if life is as pre-ordained as some believe, that it’s no coincidence that Tracy is a mother to two gifted children with autism, Kaylee and her younger brother Noah.
Then there’s that saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” that was pushed to the limits during those early years.
“A warrior mom,” is how Tracy described herself back then, as she recalled gripping Kaylee’s hand under those lurid fluorescent hospital lights, always sometime between midnight and 3 a.m., and how her heart sunk at the sight of her daughter in those hospital beds, her face puddled with tears, her body weak from kidney reflux and high fevers. Even without the runs to the hospital, a sense of weariness pervaded the long nights at home when tantrums escalated in volume and shrillness, or the seizures erupted without warning.
No, high-energy, highly sensitive Kaylee was high on life and had little time for things like sleep. Life was an uprush of wonder for her; she was like a speedy jet-fighter plane that landed only briefly to stop for fuel before swooping back into the clouds with no one to reach her.
“I look back on the last 10 years and I think, ‘I don’t even know how I did that,’” Tracy said shaking her head.
The next morning after I met with Kaylee and Tracy, I received an impromptu breakfast invite from Kaylee’s parents, Tracy and her husband Neil, at Robin’s Nest, an intimate bustling cafe just a block from my hotel’s oceanfront street.
“Meet Neil,” Tracy said as we approached a man at a wooden table in the café’s far corner. Neil jumped to his feet and outstretched his hand, and in the afternoon light, I caught a glimpse of faint smile lines that stretched around the corners of two twinkling blue eyes.
I found Kaylee’s father Neil to be a bright, worldly man, who like most of the Irish, came with a quick accent that sometimes lost me in translation and a dry wit. He met Tracy in America through a Scottish couple and they both found their way back to Donaghadee where his parents live. 11 years older than Tracy, he still holds an athletic build from his marathon running days, and can keep up with her both mentally and physically, even taking the occasional playful “old man” jab when his stories wander into, “back on the farm when we had no electricity and I walked on the dirt road for 10 miles,” kind of tales.
Neil fell into his latest job as a bus driver, and even whittled down his hours to part-time, to be there for his two children and give them structure, advised by their children’s specialist, Dr. Matt McConkey, from Scrabo Warren Children’s Centre, a kind of autistic whisperer, who Tracy and Neil follow advice from religiously.
“It’s changed her life, didn’t it?” Tracy asked Neil of Kaylee, as she cut into a smoked salmon bagel. “It’s not about money, it’s about being present for your child. And with special needs we just said, ‘It’s just money; it’s not important,’” she said, grazing over such a sore topic for so many that I know.
I felt relieved to be a piece of unusual diversion to their day in that lively cafe, and we laughed together over warm drinks and fresh food until the afternoon as Kaylee’s parents recounted tales on what life is like with two children with autism.
Neil recalled a scene from Tracy’s step-sister’s oceanfront garden wedding years ago in Maine. While the guests all laughed casually under the white summer dining tent, Kaylee blurred behind them, racing in the distance, Neil panting close behind her as if stuck in a permanent loop of a Tom and Jerry cartoon chase.
“Kaylee ran the whole time,” Neil said of the three-and-a-half hours that he zipped behind Kaylee until the sun set. “I was exhausted.”
By the time Neil limped back to the tent, the guests’ plates were cleared. “When I finally got something to eat, Kaylee knocked it out of my hand,” he said laughing, and Tracy reminded him that it didn’t end there, both children didn’t sleep that night.
Kaylee was born high-energy and particular, common symptoms of autism. Her parents were used to cracking open the same book, “Fairy Medicine,” every night, about a girl who consumes green medicine and her limbs grow long – the only bedtime book in the rotation for three years straight. And that seven-hour plane ride from Dublin to Boston? Reading the book cover-to-cover again and again for seven hours stopped her crying.
If something was off – the lighting in the room, sticky fingers, or, as Neil said lightly, “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” a color of a straw (when Neil presented her with a yellow straw instead of red) Kaylee was set off.
“All of a sudden it gets to be too much,” said Tracy. “That’s the way they communicate they’ve had enough. They don’t always tell you what’s going on. They say things can build up for two weeks or a month and all of a sudden you’ll have an autistic meltdown.”
The autistic mind is black-and-white, and consistency in their environment is crucial: repainting or redecorating a room – even Christmas lights can trigger a meltdown.
Tracy reflected on the symptoms of autism that unraveled into a diagnosis years later. In groups of children, Kaylee played alone, and the noises such as the ambulance coming through town and the hand dryers in the bathrooms rattled Kaylee until she melted to the floor in uncontrollable sobs.
Their parental duties must remain consistent: Daddy tells bedtime stories; Mommy brushes hair. If there was a switch? “No, you don’t brush my hair! Mommy brushes my hair!” Neil wailed in Kaylee’s voice, following a chuckle.
And when Tracy took Neil’s spot one night for bedtime stories, she was confronted the next morning by a sober Kaylee. “Mom, your story was okay, but Daddy’s better at telling stories.”
“That’s the one thing about autism, you get a thick skin,” said Tracy laughing.
“You also learn that a wall doesn’t just hold a roof for you,” said Neil. “You can bang your head against it.”
I remember writing a newspaper article 10 years ago on Temple Grandin called “Autistic Professor Thinks in Pictures.” I wasn’t reminded of it until Tracy mentioned the visual Velcro rewards chart she designed for Kaylee’s visual autistic mind.
“We find what Kaylee loves and then we make our daily routine out of stuff she loves,” said Tracy of the rewards chart that contains visual activities on the left and rewards on the right. “Unicorn stickers, or Wicked, Queen, and the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, and we always play Mamma Mia 2 music when we walk to school in the morning.”
Autistic children also love receiving awards, trophies, and certificates, Tracy explained – that’s a way to get them to do something, “especially Kaylee.”
So when Kaylee found herself on stage in Los Angeles rehearsing with the American pop cappella group Pentatonix for her upcoming NBC Little Big Shots performance, it was her tribe who came along with her: her music teacher Lloyd Scates, his wife and Killard TA Victoria Scates, and the show’s producer and teacher, who conspired to help make it happen.
You see, in California, there’s a law that children must clock in so many hours of school, even if they’re out of state. When word from the top arrived at the last minute that Kaylee had to finish her hours or she wouldn’t perform, her tribe got creative.
Like those who understand the autistic mind, the first thing they knew they had to do was connect with Kaylee visually: the classroom’s walls were stripped of any stuffiness and replaced with balloons.
“It’s a celebration!” the show’s teachers said when Kaylee entered the classroom, her eyes lingering on the festive balloons. “And in the end, you’re going to perform with Pentatonix.”
It was crunch time. The teachers arrived with Kaylee at the Little Big Shots classroom on a Sunday hours before she was to perform on stage with Pentatonix. Kaylee clocked in her hours and conquered her homework.
This same tactic also worked with Kaylee’s second singing exams.
Kaylee’s singing coach Katie McKeown first removed the trigger word “exam” and replaced it with “singing certificate.”
She then printed certificates of Kaylee’s favorite Wicked Broadway characters and the singer Adele. “Adele earned her singing certificate,” McKeown told Kaylee, and when Kaylee saws the photographs, she grinned widely.
It worked. Kaylee completed her singing exam with distinction, the highest honor achievable.
“And that’s how you connect with autism,” Tracy said. “You find out what your child loves and then you integrate it into teaching them.”
“Another good way to figure that out,” added Neil, “is think about the way you think about something and then think the total opposite.”
This is the man, after all, who when asked by Kaylee, “What do you want for Christmas Daddy?” replied: “A box of peace and quiet.”
“You’re never going to get that,” Tracy reminded him, and I caught a faraway gleam in his eyes of a visualization that as a parent I know too well.
Tracy glanced around the noisy cafe for a second as one does before disclosing a big secret, then leaned in and continued on what she learned from Kaylee’s autism. I could tell as she passionately spoke, that she has absorbed everything on this topic she could get her hands on. She gives credit to Northern Ireland’s health system’s free autism education classes for parents, and her belief in the non-coincidental timing of Kaylee, her music teacher Lloyd Scates and the principal Colin Millar arriving at Kaylee’s tuition-free special needs school, Killard House School at the same time. Killard, after all, was the first to recognize and nurture Kaylee’s gift.
But it was the diagnosis that really saved Kaylee.
“She was only four at the time,” said Tracy, of that weekday morning at the Donaghadee mom and tots weekly church playgroup, a morning she would never forget.
Kaylee had squeezed her mother tightly before running into the play area as Tracy sat on the sidelines with coffee, chatting with the other moms and watching Kaylee play.
That was when the wail began. A fire alarm was struck by accident, and every child froze, gazing around the room in confusion.
Then another wail emitted, a wail Tracy was all too familiar with. She traced it back to the center of the room, where Kaylee stood frozen, eyes expanded in terror. She rushed over to comfort her but Kaylee’s screaming was so penetrating she didn’t sense her mother standing there. Minutes later, the alarm stopped, but Kaylee’s wail persisted, louder, more piercing than before, until the children around her cautiously shrunk away, fearful of the terrifying chord that erupted from such a tiny body. The wail continued, and Tracy’s face turned pale.
Then in one swift movement, she lifted Kaylee and dashed straight to the GP, until Kaylee’s shrill wail was nothing but a faint echo in the room.
“There wasn’t something right with my child,” said Tracy.
“You go through a roller coaster ride when you first find out the diagnosis of autism and you feel like you bury your child you had,” Tracy said soberly. “Then the warrior parent takes over and a new child is born.
“But I never look at it as, ‘Oh, my kids have a label.’ I look at it as now I have knowledge. I hate when people say you don’t want to label your child. No – I have figured out this is what we’re dealing with so we’re going to take a different path now with raising our children. And I would never be informed if it wasn’t for Kaylee getting her diagnosis. I think of a diagnosis of ASD as a gift. You now have the knowledge and you need to do something about it.”
I observed Kaylee’s parents quietly, as they talked amongst each other jokingly, and then realized where I recognized their demeanor. I have an aunt who has eight kids. Her husband fled the family for good during those early years to set off on a spiritual quest to find himself, and there was a time when they were barreling around in a school bus turned motorhome, rocking cut-off jeans and snacking on nothing but a stash of pickles. It was a comical scene at best. One week that school bus rolled up to our house with seven little heads bopping out and the next weekend left with eight. Apparently, my pregnant aunt had birthed a child late that Saturday night in the back room that we were completely unaware of until we saw her sitting there the next morning in church with a glazed frazzled stare, debuting the latest baby on her lap. Alas, her childrearing days have run its course, and today that glazed stare is more like a permanent twinkling grin of a prisoner set free.
Having a child with autism, I can imagine, must feel like at times, like eight children compressed into one. But the diagnosis has given Kaylee’s parents space and freedom to have glimmers of normalcy once again, as they profess their love for both children: Kaylee and her singing, Noah and his football, and the love the children have for each other.
“You learn patience. You learn such love. You learn to appreciate simple things like having coffee when you have a chance. It’s all behind closed doors,” Tracy said.
“And when they’re little and it’s nights of no sleep, it’s nights of your child going from Dr. Jenkl Mr. Hyde. You can reprimand all you want but it’s like you’re blowing bubbles and nothing sticks and that’s when you kind of know, ‘Wow, there’s something off here and we need help.’”
It was in the early days when the music swept Kaylee away.
Perched in a high pew of The Belfast Opera House was the first time Kaylee’s racing stopped, and a gentle stillness swept over her.
“The sun will come out tomorrow!” the young Annie actress sang heartfully, standing erectly in front of a shadowed bridge on the dark, dazzling stage.
Tracy studied her daughter’s face. An intrigued look had settled over Kaylee, and at that moment, it was like the sun had suddenly risen before them. Tracy peered at the stage and then back at mesmerized Kaylee, again and again, as Kaylee’s face sank into alarm, then a bright smile and then laughter in reaction to the musical. Tracy felt so relieved she wanted to cry.
“The sun will come out…tomorrow!” Kaylee sang on the way home in the car, kicking her feet in joy. And she sang the next day, and many days after until Tracy was more and more convinced of a hidden truth.
“I felt inside, ‘I want to tell the world!’ And yet no one listened.
“And we never told anyone,” said Tracy, of Kaylee’s singing that remained inside their home’s walls. “It wasn’t until Killard House School cared enough to say wow, Kaylee let’s go, you can go sing at the choir, you can sing at the church,’ that she started singing in front of people. It was all Killard’s doing.”
And then the video happened. It wasn’t meant to happen, but then again it was.
The video was for the parents of Killard to purchase to raise money for the school. Nobody could have anticipated what happened next.
Kaylee was supposed to be there that night at her principal Colin Millar’s church singing in person, but she wasn’t, a cold and sore throat had struck her.
“Why not put the “Hallelujah” video on the big screen instead?” Millar asked. He was resourceful like that.
That was the last time Kaylee would go to bed as just another 10-year-old Irish schoolgirl.
The next morning began with the buzzing of Tracy’s phone on the nightstand.
She dialed one of the many missed call numbers. “Do you see how many people are watching this?” her friend asked her of Kaylee’s video.
Tracy clicked on the “Hallelujah” video that had that had moved the previous night’s audience to tears on the church’s big screen. Someone from the church had been so moved by the video, she had posted it online, and by 11 a.m. it had hit 22,000 views. The numbers ticked up like seconds. The video was blowing up. Within a week, the video had reached millions of viewers worldwide. “And then it just took a life of its own,” said Tracy.
Monday morning at Killard the phone rang all day and the staff paced speedily around the office. The press had gotten wind of the schoolgirl with the angelic voice, and wasted no time to cover her.
“Young girl with autism earns worldwide attention for her rendition of Hallelujah”
“Girl with autism’s Christmas rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ goes viral”
“Irish schoolgirl with special needs brings adults to tears with stunning Christmas performance,” the headlines read.
The BBC News, Fox 5, ABC, NBC; word had spread. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Canada, Australia, Britain; by the next morning, the world knew who Kaylee Rogers was.
Then the letters came piling in. Grown men admitting they cried for the first time: “I never cried at my mom’s funeral but I cried when I saw her.” People suffering from depression or grief over the loss of a loved one or a terminal illness: “Now I know there’s a God with an angel on earth who can sing like this.” They all agreed that Kaylee’s voice brought “peace, joy and a smile” to their life.
The last time I saw Tracy and Kaylee, Tracy was clutching a brown package under her arm she had picked up from Killard. “It’s a gift from one of Kaylee’s fans,” she said, and I got the feeling that this was a daily weekday routine. Her fans send her gifts from all over the world: homemade bows, engraved heart-shaped Irish name-engraved crystal figures, Girl Scout cookies from the USA, and heartfelt letters on how Kaylee’s voice has changed their lives and helped them through difficult times.
It’s funny, Neil reflected, “Just before we went to Boston, three months prior to the Hallelujah video, Kaylee would never fly at all.”
One month, before the fame exploded, Kaylee had followed her dad into the kitchen one morning.
“Okay Dad,” she said, standing straight and commanding, as one does before making an announcement.
Her father whirled around. “Yes?”
“I think I’m ready to fly. I want to go to London.” And with that declaration, she pivoted out of the room.
“So when Kaylee makes a decision, that’s it. She’s never looked back.”
Since then, Kaylee has flown to London, Los Angeles, Boston – and this is just the start of it.
“Perhaps with your dual citizenship, you’ll land on a one-way flight to America someday?” I had asked Kaylee the previous morning.
Her eyes widened. “I would love to move to New York. I love all the Broadway shows!” Kaylee burst out, and I knew nothing would stop her.
“There’s nothing to say that someday Kaylee will be able to perform on a bigger stage than what’s here because she has the ability,” Kaylee’s music teacher Lloyd Scates would later tell me.
I laughed at the thought of sweet little Kaylee standing in a crowded downtown Boston square, among towering skyscrapers and traffic. Kaylee saw only a magical Disney-like world. “I loved singing in the big hotel in Boston. It was so fancy and so big, it reminded me of the Beauty and the Beast Ballroom,” she had said dreamily.
And the American girl doll shop! She stood in that large double doorway, surrounded by high ceilings that spotlighted stacks of glass displayed historical character dolls of every color – from the 1800 American prairie frontier to the turn of the century flappers, to World War II. She remembered wandering inside the store in wonder until her attention was drawn to a glass door where she peered at dolls in mini salon chairs, near a sign that read, “$25 hairstyles by certified hair stylists.”
“Kaylee wanted to get her new Samantha doll’s hair done,” Tracy said, “and my mom and I went with her. And we asked the hairstylists, who said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back in an hour we’re all booked up!”
Neil and Tracy roared with laughter. “And we were like, these are…dolls?” said Tracy. “They did all these French plates and braids and within five minutes, Kaylee took it all out.”
“What a business to just do American girl doll’s hair – they wouldn’t even have an attitude,” said Neil.
Suddenly, Tracy’s alarm rang. School was out and it was time to pick up the Kaylee and Noah. Neil had already discreetly picked up the tab, and I thanked both of them for the moment that had gone by too fast before I was out the door, on the main street, and heading towards the coast.
In just two hours, an early winter blackness would abruptly invade the small town and the street lights would pop on. Then the cars would sputter to a stop until all to be heard was the sound of crashing waves.
It was 10 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning high on the green hillside inside Killard House School’s lobby when I first met Colin Millar.
“He’s a genuine man who loves to chat,” Tracy had told me of the Killard House School principal before my trip and I made a mental note.
I was Millar’s second interview of the day. As I followed him into his office, a man from the BBC was already seated at a table awaiting Millar.
“What does Killard have planned for their upcoming performances?” the reporter asked, as he placed a fuzzy microphone just inches from Millar’s face. Millar leaned forward and quickly summarized Killard’s events.
He was a fair-skinned man with pulled back cropped white hair, that I guessed was once blonde and he donned a checkered blue blazer and blue collared shirt and tie, as he crossed one crisp pantsuit leg casually over the other. There was a genuine casualness about him, a pleasant, “Come into my home and have some tea,” kind of thing, which I suspected, in tandem with his 30 years as a teacher, and as someone who contributed greatly to the local community, was why Northern Ireland had grown so fond of him that he was invited to Meghan and Harry’s royal wedding.
I glanced around his office and caught sight of a photo tacked to the wall of Kaylee singing that I recognized from the “Hallelujah” video. Next to it was a framed painting of a brick fortress kind of a building, Newtownards Model Primary, a 180-year-old legendary schoolhouse where Millar served as VP for 10 years, and the same school that he attended a boy, along with his father, his grandfather and great grandfather.
As soon as the BBC reporter thanked Millar for the brief interview and scuttled out of the room, I settled in front of Millar at the nearby table and position my recorder. Millar dashed out of the room and returned with hot tea.
Millar is a busy man, and that day was especially busy. Killard was preparing for a Christmas concert in Belfast the following Tuesday, and the staff popped their heads in Millar’s open office door with inquiries that Millar pleasantly piped up to answer.
I learned Millar plays a big part in implementing the daily singing and theatrics Killard is known for.
“I was always in school plays and drama production,” Millar admitted, laughing. “We do go overboard here because we love our shows. Our kids can shine in those. It’s amazing how they can remember the words to all the songs. Obviously, their memories are very good.”
I wouldn’t have traveled 4,400 miles from the U.S. if I didn’t think a small town in Northern Ireland wasn’t on to something, and Millar confirmed this.
“Autism is viewed here “not as a disability; not as a barrier; but as a particular learning style that these children have,” he said of his special needs school, that currently houses seven classrooms of ASD children – 63 out of 225 of the school’s children who have autism.
“We don’t see the child coming with a problem or difficulty. We see the child coming with a way of learning that we have to understand to then deliver the education that way.”
It’s kind of like this, Millar explained:
“If you would go to a hospital with something wrong with you the docs just don’t do straight prescription to you. Because they need to find out what is the issues and what you respond to and you can’t give penicillin to everybody. Some people are allergic so you have to get them something else that will work for them.
When children come here we understand first of all who they are and the way they present themselves. We do a baseline diagnostic test on the child’s learning styles and we work with them. We understand things that may present issues but we try and encourage them to face up to them. We do not force them, but if they try it and it doesn’t work we go back. We try to get them to do those things they would naturally prefer not to do. But we know in society they need to do that to live in our world as it’s created at the moment.”
My mind suddenly brimmed with images of big American classrooms, of these hyper-sensory children crammed in the midst of it. Inclusion, or something like that, they call it.
At Killard, it’s different. “We have to be sure when we’re delivering things it’s in small groups. And if we’re in an assembly they wear their ear fenders. It’s just getting there and understanding who you’re working with. And once you’ve got that actually ASD children are some of the easiest children to teach. Because you’ve got their psyche, you know their pattern, you know their program. And they’ll go along with you if it’s autistic for that program. But once you try to pull something else that’s when the cracks start.”
There was a gentle animation to Millar’s face and he left no hesitation between the questions and his responses, a skill that comes only after many interviews. I could tell by his cheerful tone that didn’t mind diverting from his duties for a while to talk on that busy mid-week morning, but I wasn’t there just for the school facts.
Tracy told me prior to coming here that Millar had nearly died from swine flu, and just a few years later in 2017, lost his wife, and up close there’s no hiding this. I could see the brush of death that he escaped from that still left a glint of shock in his sad, sea blue eyes.