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Tom Fields-Meyer

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What Most Teens Could Learn From My Autistic Son

Posted: 08/02/11 02:59 PM ET

At first I thought it was an earthquake.

I was lying in bed when I felt the house shake--thud, thud, thud--and then I heard a voice just outside the bedroom shouting something I couldn't quite make out.

Somebody was jumping up and down. It was my son Ezra.

"It's February first!" he was saying with the kind of enthusiasm most people reserve for overtime soccer goals and airport greetings. "It's February fiiiirrrrst!"

I scrambled out of bed and into the hallway, where Ezra--eight at the time, and still in pajamas--was pacing in small circles on the carpet, looking at nothing in particular. Ezra has high-functioning autism. As usual, he had risen at full speed. Early morning grogginess was a foreign concept.

"It's February first!" he said again, the words rolling out like a cheer.

"What's happening on February first?" I asked.

"It's the first day of the new month!" he said. And he kept running and shouting.

That was it. My son had sprung out of bed at dawn to celebrate a new page on the calendar. His joy wasn't about what he expected to happen. It was about the day.

Almost every child starts life with that kind of enthusiasm, that unselfconscious ability to exude pure elation. Then, as parents, we watch things change. Sometime in the middle school years, many kids (no matter how good-natured) lose their instinct to express unbridled delight. It's just not cool. So, to fit in, they hide their passions and excitement behind a veneer aloofness and detachment.

But Ezra, now 15, still openly delights in the things he loves. Doctors will tell you that autism is defined by difficulty comprehending the nuances of the social world, an inability to connect with other people. One of Ezra's gifts is that he doesn't particularly care what's cool. He cares about things like Pixar movies and otters.

And the calendar. His enthusiastic (and loud) celebrations became a monthly ritual in our home. February 1, March 1, April 1: Ezra greeted each arriving month with equal glee and fervor, his joy echoing through the day. When he noticed the date at the top of the newspaper's front page; when he overheard the NPR announcer say, "Good morning. It's Friday, July first"; when he scribbled the date at the top of his homework sheet, he couldn't help but whoop it up all over again:

"It's February first!"

"It's March first!"

"Today's the first day of November!"

The turning of the seasons came to inspire the same kind of merriment: spring, summer, winter, fall. Ezra woke up our family on the twenty-first of March or December with his own style of unrestrained joy:

"It's the first day of spring!

"It's winter now!"

Other children might have counted down the days to Christmas or a birthday, to baseball spring training or to summer vacation. But as his peers grew up, most of them lost their ability -- or at least their willingness -- to express unbridled excitement. They were so preoccupied with what other kids thought, they stopped being effusive about much of anything.

Not my son. Ezra, now rapidly approaching six feet in height, still shouts excitedly at the zoo: "Look! The koalas are active today!" When the credits rolled and the music rose at the end of "Cars 2", Ezra leapt to his feet and danced to the beat. At dawn on the day last month when Ezra was to start sleep-away camp, I heard that familiar thud, and then the gleeful shouting: "It's the first day of camp!"

Sure, playing it cool is part of growing up. But life can be so much sweeter with a bit of unrestrained joy. What if other teenagers could feel that depth of exultation in ordinary things? And what if they--and even adults--could shed their facades and feel free to gush, to rave, to enthuse? What if you walked into the office or Starbucks and everyone was genuinely excited, just because it was the first day of the month?

How cool would that be?

 

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