Benny and Me: A Father Sees Himself Through His Son

Updated: Jan 29, 2019

By Mike Postma.

It was a miserable day in the fall of 2001 when we got our first glimpse of what our lives would be like for the next 20-odd years. We were a young family: a mom, a dad, one young daughter in elementary school, a newborn, and a young lad, Ben.

Ben had always been a very alert boy, one who needed little sleep and had eyes that betrayed a deep longing for information. To say he was curious would be an understatement. As a boy, Ben was constantly getting into everything – taking things apart, exploring, sneaking, finding trouble even where trouble could not possibly be found. On this particular fall day, while mom was occupied with the baby, Ben covered his upper torso with marker before dressing himself, shirt on backwards; head through the arm hole; and, of course, no pants. Armed with a small army of rubber snakes, he decided to find the local park. Dog in tow, he jimmied the lock on the back door and made his way to the park about a quarter of a mile away. One frantic hour later, Ben arrived home via the back seat of a police cruiser, thanks in part to the intervention of a Good Samaritan neighbor who had sensed that something was amiss.

We learned, the hard way sometimes (and with much consternation on my part), that dealing with Ben was going to take a little extra. You see, I work in the field of gifted and talented education and, by 2001, already had some experience working with what we have since labeled the twice- or multi-exceptional child. Ben, it turned out, had Asperger’s Syndrome, something that I, the so-called expert, didn’t see in my own child. Nor did I see it in myself. Yet, as we grew up together, I saw and relived my own childhood as a multi-exceptional student through living with, chasing, laughing, lecturing, supporting, admonishing, dragging, and, yes, advocating for Ben.

First Experiences With School As a student in pre-school, Ben refused to play with the other students or engage in whole-class learning, preferring to spend his time exploring and investigating his interest areas.

Flashback: Why doesn’t everyone love Geography?…Why won’t my fourth grade buddies talk to me about the historical implications of Alexander’s conquest of Persia?…I just spent my entire night with a flash light reading about the man…Uh-oh, the teacher is saying something to me…I need to slump down a little farther, perhaps she will see over me…kids are looking at me…shame, panic, anxiety.

Eventually, we pulled him out of pre-school to accommodate his strong desire to remain at home. We discovered that home was his comfort zone and saw that he would struggle (and does so even today) with the transition from that comfort zone to any other place – any place, that is, where he was expected to interact with strangers.

When it was time for kindergarten, I felt that something was amiss as I witnessed a school administrator give Ben a timed, kindergarten readiness exam. Hood pulled over his head, Ben answered some of the educator’s questions in a whisper and simply refused to respond to others. “He knows these answers,” I screamed in my head. “Why won’t he say anything?” Every now and then he peaked out at me with a look of pure fear.

Flashback: Something is knocking at the back of my brain…a memory perhaps…testing, testing, testing…anxiety, blankness…failing.

Ben was formally admitted to this private school, but with some apprehension. All seemed well until later that fall. Much of the work coming home either had large ”incomplete” or ”unsatisfactory” labels stamped on them or what appeared to be oceans of red ink, while most of his classmates’ papers were covered with smiley face stickers and pluses. We waited in trepidation for the first parent/teacher conference. His teacher was concerned. Ben didn’t seem to be paying attention; and, while not a behavior problem, he wasn’t ”up-to-speed.” He also refused to speak. Perhaps, I thought to myself at that time, there isn’t much interesting within the classroom to speak about; but, having learned some social mannerisms through the years, I refrained. Was there something we were missing? Surely the teacher would let us in on the secret. No, she wanted him to apply himself – no suggestions, no solutions, no accommodations, no changes.

Life in kindergarten did not improve for Ben. His absences were up, learning was down, and intervention was nowhere to be found. As the year came to a close, the school announced its intentions to retain Ben. He just wasn’t ready for kindergarten, they said. But he’s six, loves art, and is great with numbers, we countered. He’s just not ready, they stated. But Ben will be seven and still in kindergarten, we started but slowly trailed off. See you next year, they beamed. Good bye, we muttered. Good riddance, whispered Ben. Bad genes, they thought.

How could this have happened? Kindergarten is supposed to be a fun, positive learning experience for children, the launching pad that jump-starts the rest of your life. Now what? “It’s okay, Dad,” Benny ventured. “I really don’t have to go back to school. I think I already know everything I need to know to survive.” I agreed.

What’s In A Name? Our first breakthrough occurred that following summer. In desperation, we spoke with a local public school principal. As we nervously began to tell our tale, expecting the same results, the principal held up her hand. “Have you had Ben tested for Asperger’s?” You’ve got to be kidding me. I have worked with twice-exceptional children before, but my son? Slowly, the plot was unraveling in my mind. How embarrassing it was to have all that education, all that learning, all that practical experience, and not see those traits within my own son.

Flashback: Asperger’s…Asperger’s…his social anxiety, his clumsiness, his apparent reading disability, his intensity, his sensitivity, his mathematical wizardry, his hood….my social mishaps, my intensity, my fanaticism with social sciences, my apparent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (ask my wife), my lack of empathy…Ben was me and I was Ben, and yet we we’re so different. Asperger’s.