A Walk in the Park




My family is full of special kids — funny, smart, good-looking. I'd expect nothing less from the Saner gene pool, really, but a small part of me figured that statistically there'd have to be one dud in the bunch, if only by comparison to the rest. So far, though, from the youngest up through the eldest, born my senior year in college and now a sophomore herself, the next generation is pretty universally awesome.

Ravi, however, is a little more special than the rest. That's due in part to his special needs as an autistic child, yes, but also because — to take the aphorism from Job out of context and turn it on its head — while the Lord taketh away, the Lord also giveth.

A year ago at a family dinner, I had a chat with Ravi to figure out a good book to get him for his impending 6th birthday, asking if he preferred history or fantasy (or liked both).

Ravi: "I prefer history and non-fiction to fiction."

Me: "Do you have a favorite period of history?"

Ravi: "About 4.6 billion years ago is the limit of my interest in history."

Me: "..."

Ravi: "That's approximately when Earth and the solar system were created."

Obviously, Ravi has a mind for facts. While he was then (and remains) very into dinosaurs, I was afraid of duplicating one of the many books on the subject that he had already, so I went with a little encyclopedia on the fifty states of the USA; this year, when he turned 7, I opted for a book on astronomy with lots of data about the planets, moons, and constellations. The most impressive part is that, just as he awkwardly learned certain social skills by rote but then internalized them in situation-specific ways like the rest of us do — a pretty remarkable thing — he is capable of taking, say, a chunk of prose on Columbus's voyage to the Americas and not just repeating it verbatim but extracting content for use in another context. He's not just an autodidactic automaton, thanks to both good fortune and good parenting.

Not all that long ago, Ravi didn't hug or know how to greet people appropriately. He still doesn't necessarily get sarcasm and at any given time might well speak (if not sing — in a language he apparently invented) more persistently or more loudly than those in his company find comfortable. Yet to most casual observers, even wait-staff and neighboring patrons treated to his hyperverbal nature at a restaurant, Ravi is just a bright, demonstrative, precocious little boy with dietary restrictions.

Cousin Julie was visiting last year and began quizzing Ravi on capitals as folks who discover his knowledge in that area are wont to do. When he actually got one wrong — and this is a kid who will say "Ulan Bator" when you reach the g in "Mongolia" — he took it in stride.

Julie: "Poland."

Ravi: "Helsinki."

Julie: "Helsinki? Are you sure? I think it's Warsaw."

Me: "I think Helsinki's in Finland."

Ravi: {literally smacks head} "Of course it is!"

Very early on, well before he was even a year old, Ravi's parents recognized that he was having some developmental issues. I don't know what Ravi's life would be like if they hadn't been so astute, worked so hard, and received so much of the attention that Ravi has needed since his diagnosis on the autism spectrum, but while it still hasn't been easy I've never been able to think about autism — whose related disorders, granted, have expanded to include a wide variety of conditions including fairly high-functioning Asperger syndrome — without recalling the extreme case of the youngest sister of one of my best friends in grade school, who never acquired language skills, interacted (when she interacted at all) in an impulsive and animalistic way, and ended up institutionalized.

So when Ravi's parents and sisters join him as part of Ravi's Rangers on Sept. 24th at the Walk Now for Autism Speaks event at the Phillies' home stadium, Citizens Bank Park, it's not a selfish act — except insofar as it's good exercise and builds community. The money raised goes to early diagnosis, research, and treatment that will likely, hopefully, affect children not nearly as fortunate as Ravi. You can help by going to the above link, through which you can donate to the team or to another group at a similar event in your area.

As I said at the outset of this post, my family is full of special kids. Ravi's older sister Leah is a voracious reader and born choreographer, while his younger sister Noa has the most precious voice you've ever heard and could model for anime or manga artists drawing doe-eyed chibi characters from life. And that diversity, in the face of all the challenges it presents, is also eminently rewarding. One night earlier this year I was in the same room with all three of them as Leah was eating quietly, Ravi was asking anyone in earshot the random questions that pop into his head, and Noa was just opening up an activity book.

Ravi: "Why is Seoul mad at Pyongyang?"

Noa: "Ooh… Stickohs!"

1 comment:

Joan Crawford said...

Look at the little blonde head! Aw, this is a sweet post and Ravi's a sweet boy. My nephew has Asperger Syndrome and he is the most interesting person I have ever met. So bright and intense and really, really funny in a way the kids his age don't understand.
Also, I didn't even know the difference between fiction and non-fiction until I was like... 12. I was a dim child.