13: How Stuff Works

13: How Stuff Works

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

How Stuff Works

If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley.

~Temple Grandin

Just after his sixth birthday, Benjamin began to explore how stuff works. He’d always had a mind for putting things together, making bridges over bridges in complex Thomas the Tank Engine train tracks when he was four, but his sixth birthday closely followed his entry into kindergarten, and kindergarten came with school bus rides. And it was the bus rides that started his obsession.

The driver of Bus 64 recognized that Benjamin was different, and she tolerated his eccentricities and the delays they caused. And so Benjamin made it a habit to stick his head under the bus and look around before boarding. He’d snap a picture in his mind and save it until late afternoon when he could get paper and crayons, colored pencils, or markers. Benjamin began coming home from his afterschool care with detailed schematics: tires, axels, driveshaft, linkages, engine, transmission, pipes, wires, lines I couldn’t decipher but knew were there.

On weekends, he asked me to pop the hood on my car, and his smile spread as he took in the compartment. What’s that? The engine. What’s that? The coolant. What’s that? Oil filter. What’s that? What’s that?

He went back and drew it all.

Walking back to the car from swimming class or shopping was a half-hour ordeal. He poked his head under every car along the way and held his hand out to stop cars that slowed to stalk our parking spot.

And when the visible became mundane, he drew the inside of the engine, as best as he could imagine: spark plugs with lightning bolts, pipes with crazy-angled joints, cables wrapping around and extending out to nowhere.

He combined styles, the underside of his bus connecting to a cut-away of the engine compartment, details filling large sheets of poster board and easel paper.

In his autism-focus class, he spent large amounts of time in the bathroom, practicing skills that he didn’t really care to learn. But he observed everything in the bathroom, and brought home complex drawings of the anatomy of a toilet. He put someone on the toilet and drew the plumbing in the wall and beneath the floor, how the water came in, where waste products went, what happened when they got stuck.

Then everything changed with his first human body book.

His mouth literally hung open when he turned the pages: body system after system revealed in full-color overlays. He stopped with circulatory and stared at the pattern from the heart, the thickest arteries to the smallest capillaries branching out until the shape of the body was recognizable in the flowing, pumping blood.

He drew the systems. Circulatory and nervous systems filled the body. When he drew others, he’d bring home strangely beautiful hybrids. The esophagus, stomach, small intestines, and large intestines filled the middle of the body, and pipes, cables, and gears extended out into the joints, serving the purpose of filling the shape and of providing working designs for the coolest Human/Bus 64 cyborg ever imagined.

He thumbed the book every night. What’s that? The liver. What’s that? Kidneys. What’s that? I don’t know; let me read it. He learned all the names I had to read, until the questions became a quiz. What’s that? I don’t know. It’s the duodenum.

As amazing as all of this continues to be, neither his art nor his understanding of how things work is savant ability. His knowledge and talents draw from intense focus. The question “How does that work?” must be answered immediately and with an understanding of every specific detail.

For Valentine’s Day, his kindergarten class drew hearts. His heart included arteries, veins, ventricles, and an aortic arch. Someday, some girl will get a Valentine’s heart and will ask him, “What’s that?” And Benjamin will fall in love.

~Trey Brown

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