This cherubic young man was born blind, due to a congenital condition called septo-optic dysplasia. He had serious cognitive disabilities as a child, and severe symptoms of autism: Even the faintest noises would make him scream, and he was so sensitive to touch that he kept his hands balled up in fists. “On his third Christmas, we had to go out of the room to open presents because he couldn’t stand the ripping sound of the wrapping paper,” recalls Lewis. “He wouldn’t eat solid foods and pretty much lived off liquids for his first few years. It seemed like he was a prisoner in his own body.” His doctors predicted he would never walk or talk.
When he was 2, Lewis-Clack’s father gave him a piano keyboard. It became his gateway to the outside world. Lewis-Clack taught himself to play the piano, says Lewis, “and would play until he dropped from exhaustion.” When he began formal lessons at age 5, his teacher noticed his remarkable gifts. Lewis-Clack has perfect pitch, a phenomenon that occurs in about 1 in 10,000 people: He can identify a musical note immediately, even when he hears it completely out of context. Although he cannot see and cannot read music, he only needs to hear most songs once to play them back perfectly. And he has whole libraries of music stored in his brain. “One day, Rex sat down and played through all 21 of Chopin’s nocturnes, and played them perfectly even though he had only studied or played six of them [before],” says Lewis. Unbeknownst to her, he had memorized the other 15.