Beyond labels, raising autistic son yields treasure
Jews and people with autism have a lot in common, if you ask Ezra Fields-Meyer.
As an autistic young man, he knows he has a good memory and likes to repeat things. As a Jew, he’s noticed similar qualities, which he pointed out during his bar mitzvah speech a few years ago.
“We repeat Shabbat every week. And we sing the same songs, like ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and ‘Adon Olam’ and the Kiddush. And we also have holidays that help us remember things that happened thousands of years ago,” he said.
This story is one of many related by the youth’s father, Tom Fields-Meyer, in the book “Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extraordinary Son” (Penguin: $15). The book was named a 2011 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the category “Biography, Autobiography, Memoir” earlier this month.
“Following Ezra” chronicles a father-son relationship as it evolved over 10 years, and how Ezra grew from an isolated 3-year-old to someone who started making connections — unexpected as they might be — to the world around him.
“I wanted to write about what it’s like to live with someone like this and how I gradually came to appreciate my son and celebrate him and find all these really incredible qualities that he had,” said Tom, 49, a former senior writer for People magazine who lives in the Pico-Robertson area.
This was different from the kind of books on special-needs children that were available when Ezra was young, he said.
“I found all these other books that were either really clinical or they made it look like having a child with special needs or a child with autism was just sort of the end of your life and was going to be this horrible experience,” said Tom, who will speak about the book Feb. 6 at American Jewish University (AJU) and Feb. 21 at Vista Del Mar.
At first, Tom and his wife, Shawn, a rabbi at Milken Community High School and instructor at AJU, were confused and challenged by Ezra’s asocial behavior. The boy didn’t engage in conversation or interact with other children, preferring to line up plastic dinosaur toys in symmetrical patterns.
“My first instinct as a parent was to try to find ways to solve this problem and get him the help that he needed,” Tom said. “I figured if we found the right specialist or the right therapy for him or … if I did the right research, then we could figure out what we needed and sort of get on with our lives.”
But when a therapist suggested he take the time to “grieve for the child [Ezra] didn’t turn out to be,” Tom thought about things and realized that he saw the situation differently.
“It was really my instinct to just get to know him really well and see how he developed and sort of celebrate the child that I had, and help him to be the best version of himself that he could be,” he said.
There turned out to be plenty about his son worth celebrating. Now 16 and somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum, Ezra has developed a number of passions, including a love of Gumby, animals and animation.
Tom said he’s probably been to the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens 300 times with his son, and the family regularly attends animated movies. Ezra knows that “101 Dalmatians” is 79 minutes long and was released on Jan. 25, 1961, and his memory is so good that when he finds out a person’s birthday, he can tell them what cartoon was released on that day.
The family has embraced these eccentricities.
“Instead of trying to say, ‘No, why don’t you play soccer like all the other kids?’ we’ve really encouraged him to pursue the things he’s really interested in,” Tom said.
So, in addition to being a student at Village Glen School in Culver City with other autistic youths, Ezra also takes animation classes at Media Enrichment Academy in Sherman Oaks.
“At first he just liked to obsessively talk about animation,” his father said. “But then, a few years ago, he started creating his own, which was a big leap.”
One result: Ezra made a short movie, “Alphabet House,” about letters living together and how they reacted when one of them was injured. It has been adapted with author and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld into a children’s book, “E-mergency.”
Judaism has played a role in how the family has dealt with Ezra’s special needs, too, although Tom acknowledged that it’s not that way for everyone.
“A lot of parents who are involved and active with the Jewish community and then have children with special needs find that that can isolate them,” he said.
To make things easier, Shawn started Ozreinu, meaning “our help,” a Torah study group for parents of special needs children. The family, members at the Conservative Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, also attends Shabbat morning services there that are designed for special-needs children.
“I don’t think a lot of synagogues are doing that, but they should be,” Tom said. “[Ezra] really likes to pace around and doesn’t really like to sit down for very long, but he likes to be part of the Jewish community. Synagogues should be open to people like that and make them feel welcome. That makes everyone realize that we’re all created in God’s image, and we’re all part of the same community.”
That’s why Tom loves the way the Conservative Movement’s Camp Ramah in Ojai handles things, integrating special-needs campers with other youths in certain areas, such as art class and sports.
“At Camp Ramah, all the kids know Ezra, and they all know [he’s] the kid who can tell you what Disney movie came out on your birthday,” said Tom, who is a board member at the camp. “That’s a great model. Jewish day schools have been a lot slower.”
There are other things that help, of course, like being the middle child. Ezra has two brothers, Ami, 17, and Noam, 14.
“Ami and Noam don’t treat him like a ‘special-needs child,’ ” Tom said. “They just treat him like their brother.”
That, at its most basic, is what the book is about: getting past a diagnosis to the very human and very fascinating person behind it. What Tom said he found was pure joy.
“He’s a really happy person,” he said.
As proof, Tom recalled a visit to the zoo during which he and Ezra encountered baby otters for the first time.
“That day he was so excited, and we spent half an hour looking at the otters. Ezra kept saying, ‘I’ve never seen this before! This is something that’s never happened at the zoo before!’ ” Tom remembered. “He’s jumping up and down and thrilled to see baby otters. It’s amazing to be able to be with someone like that.”
Tom Fields-Meyer will appear at American Jewish University on Feb. 6 at 11 a.m. for conversation and a book signing. The cost is $10. He will also appear at Vista Del Mar on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. on a book panel, “Two Fathers’ Journeys: Raising and Being Raised by Sons With Special Needs” (with Leonard Felder). Book signing to follow.
For information or reservations for Feb. 6 event, call 310-440-1246 or visit wcce.ajula.edu. For information or reservations for Feb. 21 event, visit jewishla.org.
To watch Ezra’s animated short, “Alphabet House” on YouTube, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0LPfQLm4WA.