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Going Home

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Going Home

In September, Ben and I marched in the 2008 Alan Ross Texas

Freedom Gay Pride Parade with our church, Cathedral of Hope.

Marchers wore red, blue, green, or yellow shirts, rainbow colors, and the church’s theme, A Rainbow People, reminded me of The

Wizard of Oz.

As Ben and I waited for the parade to start, standing in the shade of a huge old cottonwood tree and sharing a blue snow cone, I thought about how far we had come, and not come. Two decades earlier we began our journey. Me, the Cowardly Lion, kicking holes in the wall and fearful that I was not up to the task of raising a disabled child. Sue, our Tin Man, rusty with grief. Ben, our Scarecrow with a head full of straw. The Yellow Brick Road is an image of the changes taking place in our lives, our journey, the gifts we have received.

Ben is a work in progress. The full force and fury of the autism storm have passed. Like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, damage is extensive and repair work is underway.

Standing there in the shade, sipping my melting blue snow cone,

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Ben At School

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Ben At School

On the home front, Ben was making good progress in his discrete

trial program. He’d mastered catch and throw ball, flush toilet, hang up coat, stack dominoes, chain paper clips, blow up balloon, fold wash cloth, pour water, nod yes and no, spin quarter, empty trash, hang up picture, kick ball, and zip pants.

He’d also learned to imitate the vowel sounds in saw, see, and up, and the consonant sounds M, S, F, Wh, B, and P. My student therapists were rehabilitating him like a polio victim, restoring his atrophied neurological system.

Best of all, he had learned to imitate. I could show Ben what I wanted him to do—make a fist, stick out his tongue, cover his head with a blanket—and he would do it. He no longer needed food as a reward: “Good job, Ben!” was reinforcement enough for him. I was confident that he could learn anything we had the patience to teach him. At age eight, he was ready, I thought, for school.

But I was apprehensive about the Dallas Independent School

District. They’d fired the only teacher who’d made a breakthrough with Ben. When I picked him up or dropped him off, I often stayed for a few minutes to observe and to chat with the pupils. Jason, a bright, attractive boy, about a year older than Ben, was bouncing on a foot trampoline.

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Sunset

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Sunset

But even as Ben rallied, the stress on the family was taking a toll.

July of 1991, Sue and I entered family counseling, trying to save our twenty-four-year marriage. As summer blended into fall, our relationship continued to unravel.

July 23, 1991. Sue and I met with Russ Dunckley, Ph.D., a family

therapist, to discuss some issues in our relationship. Sue and I had struggled repeatedly with my sexual orientation, beginning before we were married. She knew I was gay—my affair with Joel was no secret— but marriage was supposed to keep me on the straight and narrow.

An unlikely expectation, from a twenty-first century perspective, but one that we held on to in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

By late summer of 1991, I was losing control. Beneath the fortress of our marriage, tectonic plates were shifting. I dreamed about a small city in Iowa, like Iowa City, where Sue and I had lived during our first three years together. In my dream, a building collapsed, burying hundreds. Then the top half of a glass-and-steel tower imploded.

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Quirky Ben

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

Quirky Ben

August 1987. Carrollton, Texas

“Do you think the hospital would take him back?” I asked Sue in mock exasperation.

“We could leave him on the steps,” she kidded. We both laughed and welcomed the comic relief. After two days of Ben at home we were exhausted. He screamed. Before feeding, after feeding, while his diaper was changed, bedtime to witching hour, Ben screeched like a madman howling through a megaphone. Twenty minutes of sleep, more screeching, another short nap if we were lucky, then back to the megaphone. Our other two kids hadn’t been like this.

But Ben wasn’t like our other kids; no, not from hour zero. First, his head was gigantic, above the 98th percentile, off the charts, sticking out of his mom’s birth canal then out of the papoose wrapper like a preposterous Tootsie Roll Pop. I held my newborn son while the doctor sewed up Sue. Big head, I thought, good. With all that space for brains, he’ll be a genius. But as the medics wheeled him down the hall, he screeched woefully, painfully.

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The Benjamin Project

Dan E. Burns University of North Texas Press PDF

The Benjamin Project

If no one would help me, I would have to recover Ben myself. I

rented a suite in the back wing of Rainbow Apartments, an outof-the-way, sunny third-floor location where Ben’s tantrums would be shielded, I hoped, from the prying eyes of neighbors and Child

Protective Services.

Catherine Maurice described the staffing procedure, and it sounded straightforward enough. I was going to need six therapists working in shifts for a total of forty hours a week. Recruit college psychology students. Pay double minimum wage. Train them myself.

I set myself a goal. By noon, I would write six letters to the psychology departments of local universities, asking them to post a help-wanted notice on their bulletin boards.

I wrote out a task list:

1. Look up the universities.

2. Make the mailing list.

3. Address the envelopes.

4. Call the departments.

I froze. This can’t possibly work, I thought. The secretary who’d answer the phone would not understand what I was talking about.

Your son is what? Autistic? And you want to recover him? Ah-ha-haha-ha-ha-ha. Autistic children don’t recover. No, you may not speak

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