Benjamin Says It Best

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I had planned to write a new post about autism today.   But I realized that nothing I could write says more about the experience of being autistic than the essay my son Benjamin wrote when he was in high school, which I featured in this post last year.   I hope you don’t mind a reprise—I think some things are worth repeating.  (If you’d care to read more about our experience with autism, click on “Autism” under “Categories” in my sidebar.)  And to learn more about autism in general, a good source is TEACCH in Chapel Hill, NC, where Benjamin was diagnosed. 

(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.”

19 Responses to “Benjamin Says It Best”

  1. wesleyjeanne Says:

    I love this post the first time…and I love it still.
    Thank you Benjamin, for your articulate and meaningful expression of your experience.

  2. Betsy Says:

    Oh Beth–that is such a fabulous post. Since I’m fairly new to your blog, I wasn’t aware. Benjamin seems like such a neat young man. What is he doing now????

    I have another blog friend, Jayne (Journey through Grace) who has an autistic son. Do you know her? She and her family live in GA… You two may want to connect. If interested, let me know and I’ll hook you all up.

    I know you are proud of Benjamin. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy.

    Love and Hugs,
    Betsy

  3. clairz Says:

    This is a beautiful, beautiful post, one of many touching ones I have read on your blog, Beth. By “touching” I mean that I have read things here that touch my heart and truly stay with me, to be thought about again and again.

    Shame on that teacher who said that bullying was a part of growing up. There are many teachers who can take a bullying incident and use it as a teachable moment to make children aware of other people’s feelings and to become more careful of hurting their classmates with words and actions. I’m so sorry your son had to suffer through having a teacher like that, who could have helped. Instead, the teacher’s words were those of a bully, though she/he might not have thought of them in that way.

  4. CountryDew Says:

    Just as good the second time around. You’re right, some things are worth repeating.

  5. Margie Miller Says:

    What a good looking and articulate young man. Tell us about what he is doing these days.

    Kids can be so mean.

  6. jayne Says:

    Betsy shared your blog info with me and I’ve just read all your posts about Benjamin. Our Sam is now 16, going on 17, so I know your pain and pride.

    I loved the part in one post where you wrote, …”hope begins to push away fear; and perhaps even, your new visions are truer and more benevolent, in that they are based more on the essence of who your child is rather than your own ego.”

    Boy, but it takes a long time to get there, but there you get. Grace wins out, and life moves on. Bless you all on your journey as well.

  7. luckypennies Says:

    I could not ask for a wiser, kinder, or stronger brother. I love you forever and always, Benjamin.

  8. Sharon Says:

    I have loved Benjamin for quite awhile (you too, Ariel), from reading the original post with his essay, from mentions of him in other posts, and from reading his loving comments. Having never met him, I can still say that I love him and am proud of him, and I can say the same about his mother.

  9. eemilla Says:

    The reprise is a great way to encourage newer visitors like myself to hop into the archives. Thank you.

  10. Benjamin Says:

    Thank you everyone for your kindness! And thank you Mommy for posting this…

    In response to anyone asking what I am doing these days: I have had many blessings in my life, not the least of which is my family. But more specifically, I am now going on six years of playing guitar–it helps focus me, and it also is a very effective outlet for some autistic tendencies that still affect me in some small way. For example, obsessiveness: guitar takes very focused single-minded devotion for extended periods of time, and a need for routine: one constant thing in my day-to-day activities is some guitar picking in the evening. I have also found a wonderful church which is still helping to heal my spirit (and in which I play the guitar).

    Aside from guitar, I always find some time to hike, to play around with my computer or some electronic circuit, or just to talk to all the people in my church, my dorm or in my classes. I am enjoying being at Western Carolina University very much.

    And Jayne, God bless you and good luck to Sam as he goes through life day by day. Just take it day by day and remember what’s true and what’s important in life.

  11. jayne Says:

    Thank you Benjamin. I don’t think Sam will ever be as articulate as you are, but he is a wonderfully joyful soul who also finds so much comfort in his routines. Best wishes to you as you continue your journey in life as well.

  12. Judy Says:

    Hi Beth, I did not know about Benjamin either and went back and read your other posts. I just love the pictures. Benjamin looks like such a sweet, wonderful person and I know you are very proud of him. I blame the parents when their children “bully” some child in school. I always told my kids if I ever found out they were making fun of anyone or bullying anyone they would answer to me and it would not be pretty! One time, I had this man come by my house and he told me my twin girls had taken up for his daughter on the school bus because some bigger kids were bullying her. They were a force to reckon with together. lol. I enjoyed reading Benjamin’s comment, too. He writes so well. Thank you for sharing this again so that we could all be more aware of autism.

  13. Yvonne Lewis Says:

    Hello I am from the Uk. I was interested about it being Autism week as my eldest son is a carer in an adult home for the Autistic. he finds it very rewarding though he has just gone into remission with cancer himself.
    I enjoyed reading your webpage. Thank you.

    Yvonne

  14. Jeff Says:

    Wow!! Even though I read this post late last year when I was browsing the archives, now that I know you better, Beth, it really hits me harder. Bullies should be banished to a special place where they can bully each other, instead of the victims they pick on so remorselessly. Now I understand why you are able to be so clear and articulate about the bullying behavior of the right wing populists like Limbaugh. Wonderful post. I wasn’t aware that April was National Autism Awareness Month.

    And Benjamin? Being focused is not a trait found only in autistic folks. I have that “fault” also. What are you studying at WCU?

  15. Clara Melvin Says:

    Hi Beth (and Benjamin) I did not know Benjamin was autistic. Somehow, I must have missed that post last year. What a fine young man he is Beth. I can tell your heart runneth over with love for him (and Ariel) Thanks for this post!

  16. chris Says:

    Thank you for this post. I am an albino and your words about people’s reactions to people with differences resonate deeply with me. This is a subject that, in my 60s, concerns me still. Benjamin is so articulate. My thoughts are still so clouded with emotion I can barely express myself. I applaud his understanding and maturity.

  17. Benjamin Says:

    Jeff: that is true. I have come to discover that the only real faults in you are the parts of you that truly hurt other people. Everything else is just part of who you are. I am studying Electrical and Computer Engineering here at WCU, with a minor in Computer Science (and an honorary minor in music since I do so much of it, haha). What are you getting into lately?

    Chris: I hope you continue to heal every day. Thank you for reading this, and thank you for your concern.

  18. Benjamin Says:

    And Ariel: same to you. Thank you for all the years of listening to my rants and raves and just being a good friend.

  19. Teach Your Children Well « Blue Ridge Blue Collar Girl Says:

    [...] before about the importance of teaching our children to embrace those who are different, as has Benjamin. But I thought it was worth repeating, because sometimes it seems that folks are becoming less and [...]

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