Ben's Turn

It's the end of the school year at O. Henry Middle School. More than two dozen sixth graders are giving oral presentations in David Matthews' social studies class. The kids are grouped at tables around the room. They alternate between semi-rapt attention during the presentations, to summer's-almost-here distraction in between. Ben Lowe, a child with autism, is a special education student in the regular education class. Like the others, he has prepared a speech.

When I walk into Mr. Matthews' classroom escorted by Lauren Bearden, one of Ben's special education teachers, Ben jumps up to greet us. We step into the hallway for introductions. Ben shakes my hand, and reading my name tag announces, "I'm Ben and you're Spike." His communication skills are exceptional for a child with autism; he is considered at the high end of the autism spectrum.

Earlier in the week, Bearden told a story exemplifying how Ben's mind works differently than those of his peers. When he gets upset, Ben is encouraged to count to 20, forward and then backwards. One particular day, instead of numbers, Ben chose to name 20 battlefields, in alphabetical order. Amazed, Bearden gently challenged him to recite them backwards. He did, missing only two. When Ben gets interested in a topic, he will research it tirelessly and memorize all sorts of statistics and other information which he categorizes in a highly organized fashion.

When speaking to Ben, you get the sense he isn't like the other kids in his class, but without knowing he has autism, you might just think him a bit "different." Seated among the others, his attention waxes and wanes. But this is not unusual. After all, it's a warm day, summer vacation starts in a week, and these are children on the cusp of adulthood. Puberty beckons, and there is a strong sense that a hierarchy is in place, cliques and circles of friends are well on the way to being formed, and fashion and fitting in are at least as important (if not more so) as the academic lessons at hand.

Today's assignment marks the culmination of weeks of hard work and research. Each student was assigned a country, instructed to rename it, and required to learn all about its natural resources, politics, transportation, human rights, and import and export products. Each, in turn, stands up to describe his or her country and to argue their case. Classmates make up a mock United Nations and after each presentation, the U.N. decides whether or not to admit the new country into the organization. Some presentations are focused and feature print posters as well as PowerPoint graphics offered on a big screen. Others are more scattered.

While he waits for his turn, Ben gets a chance to be timekeeper, holding up cards to let the speakers know how far into the speech they are, so that they can stop within the six-minute time limit. Ben likes this job, checks his digital watch closely, holds up the time cards, and announces at the end precisely how long a speech lasted.

Between speeches, while the kids are voting, the usual classroom chatter ensues. I notice one boy in the back telling Ben to do something. He isn't exactly picking on Ben, but it's pretty clear this is one of those kids who recognizes that students like Ben can be easily led and who might well, when no teacher is around, try to entice him to act inappropriately. On this day, nothing bad happens. But still, I want to go over and pinch the potential troublemaker on the back of his arm.

Finally, it's Ben's turn. He steps up to the podium. Later, Mr. Matthews will tell me how nervous Ben had been prior to his speech. But Ben manages to collect himself. He begins describing "Bennington" and explains that it once was China. Ben is a dynamic speaker. He stumbles for a moment, stops, thinks, and announces frankly, "I need help." No one misses a beat. Mr. Matthews steps up to the podium, exchanges a few words with him, and once things settle down, Ben continues with confidence.

His speech alters from flowing sentences to a sort of staccato rhythm when it comes time to list the country's exports. At the end, he declares that all of the citizens currently ride bicycles and exclaims, "Bicycles don't make air pollution!" Still, he notes that one day soon, Bennington will have "Monorails!! and Bullet Trains!!" Perhaps this is a coincidence, perhaps not, but it is quite common among children with autism to have a fascination with trains.

Then Ben announces that he hopes his country -- "The country of the future!" -- will be accepted into the U.N. His classmates cheer as he steps from the podium. He takes his seat and waits. The announcement comes: Bennington is in.

Ben then does something his other, regular ed classmates, probably wouldn't dream of doing. Because they want peer approval, because they don't want to be considered silly, they probably would never show their true feelings the way Ben does. When he hears that he's made it, Ben leaps upfrom his chair, jumps a little, and shouts, "I made it! I made it!" Again, his classmates applaud. --S.G.

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