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.

41 thoughts on “A Life Of Many Colors

  1. I have no personal knowledge about autism, but I feel like I have a much clearer picture of it after reading this piece.

    It was easily the best post I’ve read in the past few weeks. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. My sister-in-law teaches a classroom full of kids with autism, and when she told me what today was you and Ben were the first people to cross my mind. Thinking of you both!

  3. Autism has so many levels. My cousin has three kids that are autistic, and every single one is different. They’re amazing individuals is all I know, and so are you and Ben!

  4. Like usual you share the story with humor and honesty.

    I agree with G. It seems like people/professionals/talk show hosts are constantly trying to “label”

  5. How heartbreaking and endearing. One of my good friends Aspergers and he is one of the sweetest guys in the world, even if he is a little awkward.

  6. Becky, this was really interesting to read. It must be such a difficult joy to raise Ben. Thanks for sharing.

    (Um, OF COURSE his favorite was Io. I am awesome.)

  7. Amazing! We had all the Baby Einstein DVD’s and they provided only a few minutes of distraction from nursing or otherwise glomming onto me. How lucky for you that you found a subject that fascinated him so fully.

  8. I have learned so much about autism since becoming a parent – probably not as much as you have, unfortunately so much of the info out there is fear based – vaccines cause it! Vaccines don’t cause it, but if your kid is prone to it, it might “awaken” it! But knowing about it makes me look at the kid not participating in my kid’s class and think “maybe there’s something going on there that I don’t know about,” rather than assuming they’re just misbehaving.

  9. This brought tears to my eyes. One of my good friends is autistic and finding the thing that makes her eyes sparkle (art) is just amazing. It makes them into a totally different person!

    I am so glad that you discovered that magic switch.

  10. I can’t even imagine what it’s like. Frankly, I don’t want to. How amazing it must have been to see him awaken, and so heartbreaking at the same time.

  11. You know? He’s Ben. He’s a kick-ass big brother and an awesome little dude because you are his mother.

  12. My cousin’s child, who is now 16 and I suspect had Asperger’s, was similar — but with the trains and dinosaurs. Bothered by loud noises, unable to read other’s emotions. I can’t imagine Becky, how exciting and fresh and scary. Your son, and especially his patient loving mommy, are in my thoughts today.

  13. It’s amazing to me, reading this, how similiar stories were written before the word Autism came into play. Back then it was “genius” was it not? Ben is amazing, I know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but with your help and nurturing, he will grow into an amazing adult one day.


  14. I bet that was so tough for you when he was younger. Wondering why he was so “different”. I’m glad you found the reason and embraced it. He’s a lucky guy to have you and The Daver as his parents.

  15. That was positively lovely. It made me think of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” which granted isn’t about a child living with autism but rather about a woman solving a murder mystery. But when she describes the first time she met this boy, she explains that she didn’t like kids–on principle. But this little boy had chosen her to be his. She said she was busy, he didn’t care; he wanted her to read to him. She said all she had was Euclid’s “Elements,” so they sat and read it. Over and over and over again. And that was the basis of their extraordinary friendship.

    Your lovely Ben and his love of the planets reminds me of that boy. Given an opportunity to explore something he loves, he can blossom into someone truly spectacular. He’s so lucky to have you guys for parents, people who will encourage him to be the best possible version of himself–and nothing else.

  16. I hope one day soon they find the keys to unlock the rest of his brilliant mind. Hell, maybe he’ll do it himself. He sounds remarkable.
    And wow, you could fart on your dog? Now, that’s talent!
    Thinking of you and your beautiful space loving boy.

  17. Really beautiful post. How enlightening and scary and wonderful to experience. How proud you must be of Ben, and of yourself for figuring out what he needed to succeed in this world. What a good mom.

  18. Becks, this is one of the most poignant and descriptive posts about autism I’ve ever read. It talked about some of the challenges Ben faces with autism, yet still managed to showcase the wonderful things about him, and your love for him is in every word.

    I strongly encourage you to submit it to a parenting magazine. Something. Seriously, it is that good.

  19. I didn’t know it was World Autism Day. I had dinner with my ‘high functioning’ autistic grandson, who would watch NASCAR races 24 hours a day, if they were on.

  20. Becky, I have absolutely no experience with this, but I want to tell you that your child is brilliant. Brilliance is never easy, and you have obviously been given a place that is even less easy than others. I have faith that if any mother would be able to handle the obstacles thrown in her path, it would be you. Multiple obstacles, still you. You are amazing. You are much stronger than you realize, and I am in awe of you right now.

  21. Ben is awesome because you just love him. No matter what he is. He happens to be on the autistic spectrum, yes, but even if he was just a weird little kid, you just accept him and love him and laugh at the crazy shit that he does. Autism doesn’t define Ben, BEN defines Ben. And you, Becky, let that happen. So cool.

    As far as recognizong the kid on the playground who just might be a little different… remember, there are adults like this too. I was recently in line at the market and a man just walked on front of all of us. He didn’t make eye contact, and didn’t seem to hear people complain what an asshome he was or anything. I went up and spoke to him, explained there was a line and he needed to wait his turn. He wasn’t rude, I think he may have been autistic. He couldn’t make eye contact. Had no clue to social boundaries and rules. didn’t pick up on verbal cues. He just needed someone to be kind and tell him what was wrong and what he needed to do.

    Becky, you sharing the challenges your son faces every day with your readers here helps people think about “the rude guy at the grocery store” a little differently I hope. I hope Ben grows up to be a very smart, independent and happy young man. And I hope the world grows up to treat him with the kindness and humanity we all deserve.

    Cause if they don’t, you’re gonna kick some ass! Nobody messes with Becky’s kid. Nobody.

  22. Wow. That is all amazing to me! I just can’t help but think, the CHANCE that this dvd came into your hands…but it did. If it hadn’t, he may not have discovered such a love so early, but how amazing it is that he did. I am so glad you know what stirs his heart and had the opportunity to watch it happen!

    Thanks for sharing this. For people like me who have very little experience relative to autism, it offers insight we may have otherwise never had.

    Big hug to all of you, just cuz I luv ya!

  23. Ack, I have written and re written my comment and can not for the life of me put what I want to say into words.

    Just know that your post touched me, and I thank you.

  24. Beautimous post. I’ve worked with several autistic children and this story really paints a perfect picture. I agree that you should submit it for publication. I also think you should submit an essay to DogFancy. I’d love to be able to fart on my dog – I owe him SO many.

  25. That is amazing. When I was 15 I lived with my aunt for a summer. Their neighbor had an autistic toddler. He absolutely amazed me as well. Near the end of the summer his nanny was not watching him and he wandered off. The neighbor had a pond and he had fallen in once before. We were all panicking. I sat on the phone with 911 while everyone else frantically searched for him. We eventually found him but I will never forget that day or that little boy.

  26. I have subscribed to your feed via Google Reader for quite a while now, but I don’t think I’ve commented on any posts. I may have, but I don’t remember.

    This post left me wanting to comment, but I’m not sure what I want to say. I am amazed at your son’s learning ability, even before reaching the age of two! All I can say is WOW. I have a four year old son who is only interested in farting and Spiderman, and for him to learn something such as the solar system would surprise me even at his age. Ben is such a smart boy! I don’t even know all of the moons of Jupiter!


  27. Ben sounds like a truly amazing kid. Maybe he’ll take his knowledge of the solar system (or any other fascination) and become an awesome scientist when he is grown!

  28. The gentle, repetitive motion of the clock’s pendulum. The rigid lines of toys. The arms flapping with excitement.

    Funny, how you look back on all that with different eyes.

    Beautifully written.

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