“Like One of You”

(All words in italics are the work of Benjamin)

Last year, my son Benjamin entered an essay contest for high school seniors through Newsweek magazine. The prize was scholarship money for college. He didn’t win, but, really, that was irrelevant. What was truly important in his essay, “Like One of You,” was the very first line.

To whom it may concern in the world: I’ve been in the closet for all these years, so to speak.”

Such a simple sentence—but the beginning of a profound transformation. That first line was his first step out of the closet and into the light.  For the first time, Benjamin was able to see what we have seen from the time he was born—what a precious and wondrous child of God he is. And for the first time, Benjamin was able to finally love himself the way we love him—for who he is.

Benjamin told the world that he is autistic.

“Yes, I’m autistic. A lot of people, when they hear “autism,” picture Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man with his supernatural mathematical ability. I am not a human calculator, nor can I tell you what day of the week January 3, 1971 was. Although autism affects people in different ways and varies in severity, most autistic people I have known are just regular human beings who want what everyone else wants—to be loved and accepted for who they are.”

It broke my heart when Benjamin used to beg me not to tell anyone about his autism. But even more heartbreaking, almost unbearably so, was how viciously and relentlessly he was teased and bullied in elementary school. It was a daily assault on his spirit and part of the reason he felt a sense of shame for who he was. His worst year was fourth grade. Most afternoons after school that year were spent trying to undo the damage done to his soul that day, to bind up the wounds to his heart. I’d sit and talk with him sometimes for hours.  But I never knew how to answer when he asked me why people are so cruel.  When I told his teacher what was happening, she dismissed it with a wave of her hand, “Oh, bullying’s just a part of growing up.” Benjamin, at the age of ten, told me that he wished he could die. He’d say that he wished God would take him home to heaven because the world was too hard a place for him to live.

It’s funny how bullies have a built-in radar for people who are different. Between them and kids who were simply uneducated about autism, my elementary experience was pretty miserable. Our family moved three times in elementary school alone to find the best place for me. My social awkwardness always attracted a constant stream of derision. It just took me a little longer to figure out that, no, not everyone wanted a hug all of the time (I later discovered that’s what relationships are for) and why some people could say something funny and get away with it while I would get in trouble. Kids saw this vulnerability and seized on it. I can’t tell you how many times I would get into trouble because the other kids would tell me to make a certain vulgar gesture or joke. In my naivety, I would do it in front of everyone, thinking that their laughs would finally gain me some sort of hard-earned popularity. But it didn’t, especially with teachers. Some teachers viewed me as a troublemaker and would chastise me. In fact, the only “friends” I made in elementary school were bullies looking for easy targets to torment.”

I’m writing about Benjamin now because he told me I could. Not only has he come to love and accept himself for who he is, but he wants the world to know about autism. April is National Autism Awareness Month, so I’m going to be writing about Benjamin and autism on my blog for a little while. But for now, I’ll let him speak again. After all, he does it so very well. I’ve been praying all these years that Benjamin might someday be able to sing loudly and proudly the song of himself. It’s a beautiful song. And so he does. Praise be.

“What we really need right now is a joint effort of teachers, parents, and students to learn and to teach others understanding and acceptance of those who are different….Parents of non-autistic children need to help their children to better understand differences in others and to accept them. Teachers should realize that what comes naturally to most people has to be learned by autistic people—we aren’t trying to cause trouble. And students need to think about how the taunts and insults that they casually toss off cut deep into our hearts. Just because someone isn’t a born sophisticate doesn’t mean that they are insulated from normal feelings. We’re really just one of you.”

13 Responses to ““Like One of You””

  1. June Says:

    What a heart-wrenching and heart-warming post! In addition to being quite a handsome young man, Benjamin is quite a gifted writer. I think he takes after his mom on that score. I’m so glad to hear you’ll be posting about autism. I confess I don’t really know much about it and I look forward to learning.

  2. wesleyjeanne Says:

    Beth–What a wonderful post and a beautiful tribute to Benjamin. How articulate he is in describing his own experience. And through all of those difficulties he is now a thriving college student. Kudos to you for your tenancity and love and understanding.
    Kudos to Benjamin for reaching out and for his tenacity and strength through the pain. I hope, Benjamin, that you’re finding college–and the world–a more accepting place.
    Beautiful story.
    Wesley

  3. Bonnie Jacobs Says:

    Thanks for sharing this. You may want to read Jenn’s posts about autism:
    http://hollandlife.blogspot.com/2008/01/nothing-has-changed-yet-everything-is.html

    is a wonderful haiku, and this second one shows that someone was paying attention:
    http://hollandlife.blogspot.com/2008/04/and-then-tears-fell.html

    I’m on my way now to tell Jenn to come read your blog. You have every right to be proud of Benjamin, who is a very perceptive young man and an excellent writer.

  4. Benjamin Says:

    June: Thank you for your compliments–I try to follow Mommy not only in writing, but in her way of looking at the world. And thank you for wanting to learn! (We need more of that these days.)

    Wesley: Thank you for your concern. Whenever I have a hard moment now, I just whistle or sing (sometimes “What a Wonderful World”). Side comment: I have your husband as a professor next semester for ECET 231. I’m eager to get on with my major. The Liberal Arts part of education puts your mind in so many different frames at once. Next semester I will be only a mathematician, writer, engineer, and programmer.

    Mommy: It’s amazing how much love you have inside of you. This is a great post and a perfect portrayal. I love you and can’t wait to see you again.

  5. Benjamin Says:

    And Bonnie:

    Thanks for letting us know someone is listening.

  6. Shannon Says:

    Hi Benjamin, it’s a pleasure to meet you!

    Bullies can be so hard to live through. Tell you what, I’ll write about MY experiences about being bullied this week too. Seventh grade was a rough one for me in may respects. I had never been to public school and that made me an easy mark. I had one girl, Kim Carney, that liked to take her shoe off and slam me over the head with the heel of her shoe when the teacher wasn’t looking. There are many of us that experienced being bullied, so I’m sending you many, many hugs in thoughts that you made it through rough years.

    And it seems as if you are a gifted wordsmith. Perhaps you are a voice for the autistic community. Rise, on words and spirit. Good karma, Shannon

  7. CountryDew Says:

    What a heartfelt and heart rendering post. I’m sorry Benjamin has had such a difficult time. Growing up isn’t easy and if you’re different it can feel impossible. I wish for you all better days.

  8. wesleyjeanne Says:

    Benjamin–Oh is that all, just a writer, engineer, programmer, and mathmetican!? That still seems like a lot of hats. But you’re right that the Liberal Arts part of your education does put a new meaning to multitasking.
    I do hope you enjoy Paul’s class and enjoy getting more involved in your major.

  9. bluemountainmama Says:

    what a heartfelt and beautiful post. and what an articulate, brave young man! kudos to benjamin!!!!

    my husband’s brother has asperger’s ( a milder form of autism), and i know he has suffered much of the same. he’s intelligent, has a college degree, but is severely lacking in self-confidence. educating people about autism is so important.

    and you and benjamin are doing that…..

  10. luckypennies Says:

    Thank you Mommy for sharing this post. I know how difficult it was and still is for you to write about. I look forward to seeing more posts on autism. Your amazing writing allows you to cast a beautiful light on a hard subject that so many people don’t understand.

    And Benjamin. There is no one in the world who I cherish, admire, adore, and love more than you. Even when so much of the world hasn’t shown you compassion, you show it back to them. You are a light in my life and I am eternally grateful to you and the beautiful person you are. I could never have asked for a better brother.

  11. Benjamin Says:

    Thank you all for the love you show in listening. As I said before, too few know how.

    Shannon: Nice to meet you, too! It’s a shame how those type of people look for the cracks in experience to blow a hole in confidence. And kudos to you for being brave enough to mention it.

    CountryDew: I appreciate your support, and I hope you are doing well.

    Wesley: I am sure I will enjoy his class. If you think about it, writing and ECET/Programming/Math comprise only two hats. Writing contains an aesthetic quality while all the others are focused on getting the most efficient solution that works. Thank you for your support.

    bluemountainmama: Thank you very much. Autism awareness is the one calling in life I know I should pursue. Good luck to your brother-in-law, and send him my love.

    Ariel (luckypennies):
    I could go on forever. You preserved my sanity on the school bus, protected me when I strayed, showed a profound interest in my music, made my music better (by being a part of it), and helped me become what I am today. I am so happy to have you, a sister and best friend for life.

  12. wesleyjeanne Says:

    Lord have mercy, you guys are really trying to make me cry with all the sweetness, Ariel and Benjamin. Beth, what great children you and Tom have raised. They make me like you all the more.

  13. colleen Says:

    What a wise soul. Thanks for being who you are and for sharing yourself and your story.

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