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Autistic Seattle Teen Designs Epic Light Show

A 16-year-old and his family debut a holiday lights spectacle for all

Author Elisa Murray

Published on: December 08, 2017

Alex Lubbers' light display
Alex Lubbers

Watch out, Candy Cane Lane. Step aside, Olympic Manor. A tall, bespectacled 16-year-old named Alex Lubbers is on your heels.

Almost every year since 2013, with the help of his family, Alex has created a stunning annual holiday lights spectacle at his family’s home, which he programs to music. This year, the family just debuted its biggest show yet at their new abode in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood: 25,000 lights and displays that include driveway arches, a Nativity scene and a 17-foot mega-tree, all precisely choreographed to a rockin’ soundtrack ranging from Rush to Queen to John Lennon.

Alex Lubbers
Alex Lubbers at home

Their show opened the evening of Sunday, Dec. 3, and runs every night until Jan. 1 (see details below). All are welcome to come by. Alex is often on hand to chat and answer questions. On the cold, clear Tuesday night I visited, he patiently walked me through the display, pointing out the history of different components and how they were constructed. As we talked, lights and colors flashed in perfect synchronicity to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.”

“One of my favorite songs and one of my favorite bands,” he told me.

How did all this start? “He was always obsessed with Christmas lights,” said Alex’s mom Rebecca Kerl, “and fascinated by the idea of programming lights to music.” The family has always hung holiday lights, but in 2013 they ran a small GoFundMe campaign to buy a light controller (the device that allows you to program the lights to music via a certain number of channels), which set the stage for a more serious display. Alex was off and running. That year (they lived in Phoenix at the time), their Christmas light display had 16 channels. This year, it has 72.

The other thing to know: Alex is autistic, which, Kerl said, is a boon when it comes to the deep focus essential to programming the show. “He’s very visual,” she said. “He sees it in his mind and then he programs it based on the way the music file rises and falls … It’s amazing to me how precise to the music [the show] is.”

Over the years, Alex has gained serious skills. “He spends a lot of time learning how to do the programming, looking at other people’s shows and doing research on what’s new and what’s out there,” she said. It’s also sparked his interest in night photography.

Another benefit is greater family connection. Starting in September, they work together to choose a theme (this year's is Christmas rock), plan the yard layout and pick music. Alex usually begins to program the show at some point in September.

How many hours does it take?

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” he told me with a smile.

What drives Alex to commit so much of his time to the project? First, he likes to see his mom happy. “My mom always had the dream of doing something like this, lights set to music… when we bought our first controller and it came with the software I was like, ‘Okay, time to make mom’s dreams come true,’” he said.

And there’s the appeal of giving back to their new neighborhood, which has embraced their new December spectacle. “There’s a lot of kids in this neighborhood," said Alex. "And they come by and their eyes just light up."

Maple Leaf holiday show
Photo by Alex Lubbers

If you go …

Where: 845 N.E. 88th St., Seattle (between Fifth Ave. N.E. and Roosevelt Ave. N.E.)

Hours: The lights are on daily starting about 4:30 p.m. with the show running until 9 p.m. on weekends and 10 p.m. on weekends, through Jan. 1.

Sensory alert: There are lots of flashing, bright lights, so if you have kids with sensory issues, or who have seizures, this might not be the best show for them. 

Radio: You can find the sound portion of the show on 89.9 FM (if you’re near the house), so on rainy days, feel free to enjoy the show from your car, tuned to the radio.

Say hello: Alex enjoys talking about the show, so visitors are encouraged to say hello and ask questions.

Nearby eats: Cloud City Coffee, just two blocks away, is open until 6 p.m. Roosevelt Ale House is a nice spot for a burger and a beer.

More lights: If Alex's display whets your appetite for more lights, read our full guide to seasonal lights displays which includes both paid shows at local zoos and gardens, and where to go to see the free displays of inspired neighbhorhoods and individuals like Alex.

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