I had never heard of Asperger’s syndrome before I met Ben. It was during the summer I turned 16 and my friend Rina and I were counselors at a Gan Israel day camp in a small suburb of New York City. I was given a bunk of sweet nursery-age girls, while Rina got a bunk of wild eight-year-old boys, among whom were several difficult ones.
Ben was one of them.
Ben had a shadow who had been hired privately by his mother, a 20-something-year-old who had experience with children like this. It was because of her that he was able to attend camp and participate in regular activities with kids his age.
Whenever I crossed paths with Rina and her bunk, I found myself drawn to Ben, a small, skinny kid hanging on the fringe of the group.
Ben liked to talk. His voice was throaty, his tone flatter than that of most children. He’d explain to me how things worked. He liked airplanes and computers and other mechanical things. He also liked the Lego section at Walmart and would go through the aisles, describing one item at a time.
As I got to know Ben, I learned that there were certain things to say that worked and certain things that didn’t. He didn’t like contractions. Every word had to be said separately. If he offered information on something he didn’t expect me to know, like the fact that the Ruppell’s griffon vulture can fly at an altitude of 37,000 feet, I was best off responding, “That is interesting, Ben.” When he made a comment about something that I did know, like the weather, he’d expect something like, “You are right, Ben.”
One day toward the end of camp, a late night was planned for the older bunks, with a pizza party in the field and a trip by bus to a baseball game.
My bunk was too young to join, and I thought I’d tag along as an extra set of hands. But the day before the game, the director called me into her office to tell me that Ben’s shadow couldn’t make it for the trip. Because Ben and I had developed a rapport, she wanted to know if I would do it.
I was terrified. Ben was generally well-behaved, but I’d seen him in the midst of frightening meltdowns and there was no telling when they’d happen. I stared down at the director’s desk, uncertain.
“It’s only two hours. It would be so nice if he could go.”
I said yes and spent the night regretting my decision. Every type of behavior I’d seen in Ben played out in my mind, and I wondered what I’d do, where I’d go, and even if I’d be able to carry his weight.
Ben was very excited about the game. He ate his pizza, and I reminded him to go to the bathroom before we boarded the bus. We sat side by side during the ride, watching the sun sink in the sky.