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Zoe is blind and mute but ‘Music’ is the first word she ever signed

Zoe is blind and mute but ‘Music’ is the first word she ever signed
Zoe Cruz, 12, accompanied by her mother, Margaret, at the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana. Zoe is blind, mute and severely delayed. “Music” was the first word she ever learned to sign at age 4. (Kevin Chang / Times OC)

Zoe Cruz experiences the world through music.

In fact, it’s probably fair to say her world is music.

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Zoe, who is 12, has cerebral palsy, a neurodevelopment disorder.

She is blind and unable to speak.

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But when Zoe hears music, she opens up, her mother, Margaret Cruz, said.

She’ll react in various ways, depending on the type and quality of the music.

She might listen intently or sway back and forth.

She might giggle or get angry.

“She listens to music with a different purpose,” Cruz said. “Every time I put the radio on KROQ, she hated it. She would cry. She wanted to hear classical or rock. She hears rap and sometimes she laughs hysterically. But when she hears something really instrumental, she just stops. She really opens up.”

By the way, Zoe doesn’t only listen to music.

She’s quite the musician as well.

Zoe is never without her transistor radio, which she holds up against one ear, and a recorder, which she holds against the other.

Zoe also has a small electric keyboard and uses it to play the music she hears.

She won’t play on demand but when she is ready, she plays perfectly, her mother said.

“She doesn’t like to give up her radio,” Cruz said. “She likes changing the channel.”

Zoe will find the music source, wherever it is, Cruz said, and she is particularly drawn to well-played instrumental music.

Through a collaboration between Pacific Symphony Orchestra’s Heartstrings program and the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana, Pacific Symphony musicians perform for the center’s families four times a year.
Through a collaboration between Pacific Symphony Orchestra’s Heartstrings program and the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana, Pacific Symphony musicians perform for the center’s families four times a year. (Courtesy of Pacific Symphony)

Enter the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana and Orange County’s Pacific Symphony Orchestra, the resident symphony of the Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Pacific Symphony’s Heartstrings programs brings free, live orchestral music and music education to communities and groups who would otherwise not have access to such music, such as Boys & Girls Clubs, senior centers and homeless shelters.

For the past four years, Hearstrings has also partnered with the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, staging family concert nights at the center.

“Whatever we did had to embrace the family,” said Mary Hawkes, Pacific Symphony’s director of community engagement. “The goal is to ensure this beautiful art form is accessible to everyone.”

The concerts started with string instruments.

Percussion, woodwind and brass were introduced one by one.

The concerts have been hugely popular, said Cathy Brock, executive director of the center.

“To be able to have a space here where kids can interact with art and movement … that is where Pacific Symphony comes in,” Brock said. “The idea is that there is so much more to a child than just therapy, and they are more than their diagnoses. Music is definitely that universal language. I love watching the joy on these parents’ faces.”

When Cruz, her husband, Hector, Zoe and her brother Kobe attended the Heartstrings’ concert at the center the first time, Cruz didn’t know how Zoe would react.

Zoe was mesmerized by the live orchestra.

“We were so worried because she doesn’t like to go anywhere, and she doesn’t like to give up her radio,” Cruz said. “She was fine turning it off. Now when she comes, she turns off her radio and hands it over. That’s about the only time she will give up her radio.”

Family outings in public places can be challenging for Zoe and her family, but recently they attended a Cirque for Kids! concert at Segerstrom, the first ever concert for Zoe.

The show featured circus acrobats and dancers who perform while the Pacific Symphony Orchestra plays classical and contemporary tunes.

Zoe sat and listened intently to the entire performance.

Her ear for music and ability to play helps her to bond with people around her, Cruz said.

“Some of her cognitive skills, she scores like a 6-month old,” Cruz said. “But then she’ll play something on the piano and you know there is more in there. I think it definitely helps people relate. You forget there is something going on.”

Lou Ponsi is a contributor to Times Community News.

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