What One Father Learned From His Extraordinary Son's Autism

Fields-Meyer fondly recalls a small moment 12 years ago when his now-15-year-old son Ezra first started to carve his own path


Twelve years ago, the second of our three sons was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

I hasten to point out that Ezra, now 15, is a remarkable child. Like many people with autism, he possesses a stunning memory: He can recite the running times and release dates of hundreds of animated films, and spouts with perfect recall details culled from his prized collection of animal encyclopedias. More important, he greets every day with enviable enthusiasm -- and some mornings (such as the first of each month and the dawn of each season) with particular gusto.

It has been a long evolution from the remote toddler to the strapping teenager who paces around our house holding forth about Cars 2 and koalas. I wrote my new memoir, Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son to be the book I would have wanted to read when Ezra was first diagnosed, a story that says: Your life will be different from what you expected, but it'll be okay.

With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimating that one in 110 children has some form of autism, there is no dearth of written accounts by their parents. Most such books share a common narrative: the battle against a disease, the search for a cure. Instead, I wanted to describe -- with humor and tenderness -- the remarkable, rich, and often surprising life that comes with raising such a child.

My perspective on that experience was transformed by a moment I shared with Ezra one summer morning many years ago, a moment I later realized was emblematic of our entire relationship. Here, an excerpt from the opening pages of my new memoir:

FollowingEzra.jpgThe walk was always the same. Then one day it was different.

In the summer of 1999, my wife Shawn and I spent two months with our three young sons at a retreat center nestled in the arid foothills bordering Simi Valley, California. The campus was a spectacular, sprawling property stretching over gentle, golden ridges dotted with eucalyptus, pepper trees, and cactus. Shawn, a recently ordained rabbi, was teaching Jewish texts and practices to a group of young adults. The job required long hours not only in the classroom but also in intense, private discussions of spirituality over meals in the dining hall, on long strolls, and over snacks late into the night. At the same time she was nurturing the souls of a few dozen twenty-somethings, we were also busy caring for our boys: Ami, who was five; Ezra, three; and Noam, eighteen months.

Some months earlier, Ezra had begun displaying troubling behavior. He isolated himself from his preschool classmates to flip mechanically through picture books. At home, he spent inordinate periods absorbed in solitary, odd activities like lining up plastic dinosaurs and jungle animals in precise, symmetrical patterns across the back porch. His sensory system was clearly in disarray. That summer, he was so tortured by the cacophonous noises of the dining hall that he would cover his ears and run out the doors; at nearly every breakfast, lunch, and dinner we had to designate an adult to keep track of Ezra as he paced alone in small circles on the concrete patio or sought out insects among the boulders and agave plants on a nearby hillside.

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Tom Fields-Meyer is a writer and journalist. A former senior writer for People, he has written for dozens of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. He blogs at followingezra.com.

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