By the end of the day Saturday, Sheletta Brundidge had heard “Old Town Road” 42 times. Her 4-year-old son fell asleep at the family’s Cottage Grove home in his cowboy boots and hat watching the Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus remix over and over again.
But Brundidge doesn’t mind the repetition. It’s the first thing her son Daniel, who has autism, ever said to her, and she’s still not tired of hearing it.
“It’s called a breakthrough,” she said. “It’s like he threw a brick through a glass wall. We were just blown away.”
Brundidge recorded a nine-second clip of Daniel softly singing “Old Town Road” and posted it on Twitter on Monday. During the week, the tweet was noticed by Lil Nas X (whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill) and Cyrus, who each retweeted it. By Saturday it had gone viral.
“Can you believe almost two million views on Twitter?” she said. “That’s ridiculous. That was a nine-second video. People are losing their minds!”
People may be losing their minds, but the song may have helped Daniel find his.
We had an #oldtownroad miracle at my house. My son Daniel has #autism and doesn’t talk. We caught him humming the @LilNasX and @billyraycyrus tune the other day. Then Bless God, my baby started singing the song on his own. His therapists have started to use it in his sessions! pic.twitter.com/vtCNWeg6ax
— Sheletta Brundidge (@TwoHauteMamas1) June 4, 2019
LIVING WITH AUTISM
Brundidge, 47, and her husband Shawn, 53, have four children: Andrew, 12, Brandon, 6, Cameron, 5, and Daniel.
The three youngest have all been diagnosed with autism. The parents were heartbroken when one by one their children started showing the symptoms — separating from the group, sitting by themselves, refusing to make eye contact.
Brundridge, a producer at WCCO Radio and host of the “Two Haute Mommas” podcast, quit her job and took on the enormous task of caring for autistic children.
She began researching how to help them and discovered the Lovaas Institute, which uses an intense behavioral therapy model to try to rebuild broken pathways in autistic children’s brains.
“It was 40 hours a week,” she said. “That’s a job. I don’t know why the Lord chose me, but he must have known I’d be able to handle it.”
Therapists arrive at the home at 8:30 a.m. and stay till just before supper time. The vigorous schedule worked for Brandon and Cameron. They began to make progress and now keep up with their classmates.
But Daniel was stuck.
HITTING A WALL
“Daniel was not making any progress,” Brundidge said. “We were beating our heads against the walls. It’s taken us six months to teach him the letter ‘A’.”
Daniel was nonverbal and could not even communicate with hand motions. Once, he stubbed his toe on a couch leg. He cried and didn’t want to walk. His parents thought he was just fussing and tried to keep him moving. Finally, they took him to a doctor and discovered he’d fractured his foot.
“He couldn’t talk or point at his foot. It’s always a guessing game,” she said. “We’re always trying to figure out what’s going on because he can’t talk to us.”
The therapists were ready to give up. They told Brundidge the therapies weren’t helping and there was nothing else they could do.
Brundidge sought divine intervention and prayed for a miracle.
MUSIC WAS THE KEY
On Monday, Brundidge put on her housecoat and got to work on the dishes. Daniel, who calms himself by opening and closing bottle tops and other repetitive motions, came near her and started fiddling with the buttons on the bottom of her housecoat.
He would push a button in and out of the buttonhole over and over again.
Brundidge said the house was uncharacteristically quiet. The older children were doing homework, her husband was in another room on a call, her father-in-law was napping. It was just the two of them alone in the kitchen.
That’s when her miracle happened.
“He starts humming,” she said. Then she recognized the tune. “I’m like ‘Am I a crackhead or is he humming ‘Old Town Road?’ ” Then he started singing the lyrics.
“Without instruction he has absorbed the lyrics to this song and the cadence and has recalled it,” she said. After everything they’d tried, music turned out to be the key to unlock Daniel’s brain.
She texted her husband to come to the kitchen. They both watched, stunned, trying not to express their excitement for fear of startling him back into silence.
“I started crying. The tears were coming down and landing on his head,” she said. “He started patting the top of his head. It was just full of slobber and snot and tears because I couldn’t stop crying. We’ve been praying for this boy since he went down. This is an answer to my prayers.”
Brundidge didn’t want to miss anything, which explains why her video is only nine seconds long. But she did want proof for the therapists. She called her mom and word spread through the family. Everyone wanted to see the video, so she posted it on Twitter.
A few days later, her cousin called her.
“She said Daniel’s gone viral,” Brundidge said. “He has one million views on your Twitter page.” She realized Lil Nas X had retweeted the video to his followers, as had Cyrus.
“He called my baby a king,” she said about Lil Nas X’s response to her video. “Grown men are saying, ‘I’m crying.’ With all the crazy divisive politics, race relations, abortion and all the craziness we have going on in the world, it’s amazing to think that people just took a break to see a 4-year-old child singing a song that has touched so many different people.”
what a king https://t.co/EWZLUliV3n
— nope (@LilNasX) June 5, 2019
ADVOCATING FOR AUTISM
Brundidge hopes the attention will bring awareness to autism. She and her husband hold workshops for parents of autistic children and advocate for them.
“My husband and I believe in access and information. If you don’t get the information, you don’t get the access,” she said. They don’t charge for their work. Rather, she says, “Our misery is our ministry.”
She said others have messaged her saying they recognize Daniel’s symptoms in their own child and plan to get them tested.
As for Daniel, his therapists have started using music in their sessions with him and are starting to see progress one song at a time.