Today is World Autism Day, and although I am a rebel who tends to ignore such days as “World Water Day,” “World Bread Day” and my favorite “World Plone (huh?) Day,” I can’t seem to ignore this one.
My firstborn son, my Ben, is on the spectrum.
After his ebullient first birthday party died down and all the gifts were opened (although primarily by the adults) we noticed that Ben was gifted a copy of a Baby Einstein DVD called The Planets. After some hemming and hawing on my part since reading that the American Academy of Pediatrics was strongly opposed to allowing children that young to watch television, one day as I was trying to do some homework quietly, I popped it in the DVD player. I figured that the American Academy of Pediatrics didn’t have the issue of trying to finish a ten page research paper on the use of secret police during the division of East and West Germany during the 1980’s'”fascinating stuff, I tell you–while entertaining a toddler and that they could take their standards and shove them where the sun don’t shine.
And if they didn’t care for that answer, they could always come over and babysit for me.
Even though he’d occasionally caught Sesame Street on the boob tube, I’d never seen the look on his small face peering out from his dark brown bangs before. It took me a couple of minutes to properly identify it. Ben looked, to my shock, as close to happy as I’d ever seen him. The thirty minute movie captivated him and he danced wildly to the music, flapped his arms at the pictures of the planets, while even occasionally smiling. For someone who’d never taken the slightest bit of interest in anything around him save for the pendulum on the grandfather clock in the hallway at my parents house, or the scads of Little People he’d carefully line up in rows snaking around the house, I was stupefied by his reaction.
People, even his own mother, he could have cared less about, a reaction that I had expected 16 years later from him. As a teen, I understood it, as a toddler, I was flabbergasted. I’d thought that all babies were programmed at birth to like people. And animals! Who doesn’t like animals? Ben, that’s who. Animals, even the doting black labs and cuddly kitties we lived with who adored him, not a single one of those interested him in the slightest. If we’d all disappear, only to return to give him such things as food and sippy cups, he’d have probably been perfectly content. His need for socialization and interaction was simply non-existent. Which was hard for me to accept since I had been known to both talk paint off walls and feel suffocated without the telephone affixed to my ear. To each their own, I told myself. Not everyone has the desperate need to be as social as you are, Becky.
After the thirty minute DVD returned to the menu, filling the room with a loop from Holst’s Mars Suite, he indicated through a series of hand-gestures–as he rarely opened his mouth to speak–that he’d like to watch the video again. Still shocked and amazed by this new side of my son, I carefully depressed the play button and watched his reaction closely. Once again, as the movie began and the heavenly bodies were depicted on the screen, he was enraptured. For all of the soothing and comforting that he would not accept from us, this movie seemed to do it all and more. I’d never seen my quiet, strange son so happy and contented in his entire life.
Over and over we’d watch this DVD until I probably could have acted the entire feature out by myself and without prompting, but he never tired of it. Instead, he soaked it all in, able to not only name the nine planets by heart, but soon learning the names of their moons. I followed his lead, and took this pint-sized toddler to the bookstore to pick out a book of his choosing. Rather than enjoying the board book Goodnight Moon that I suggested, instead he found a copy of an encyclopedia of the planets, designed for middle to high school-aged children and became enamored. Before bed we read it, between viewings of his DVD we read it, we read it until the spine cracked and the pages were well worn, and he absorbed every single piece of information inside it’s cracked covers.
While his compatriots in the proverbial sandbox were learning what sound a doggie makes (woof, woof, for those not in the know), Ben was learning to differentiate and name the moons of Jupiter, all sixty-three of them and had become able to identify each and every one, no matter how blurry the picture was. His favorite was Io, but Ganymede was a close second. He would spend hours and hours constructing elaborate solar systems with all of his toys, and would try his best to get the distances between them as accurate as possible when working with Little People and balls. It was quite the uncanny concentration and devotion for someone who was not even two years old. I don’t need to tell you that this was at the same age when I learned how to eat my own boogers and how best to fart on the dog without making her run away.
The depth of his knowledge was both freakish and amazing; awesome and terrible at the same time.