The power of fun: A tribute to Dave Rabb

This essay appeared on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times on February 7, 2013.

One morning 13 years ago, I brought my young son to a storefront children’s gym in Culver City. Ezra had recently been diagnosed with autism, and someone — a doctor or a therapist — had suggested that Dave Rabb could help.

I don’t remember what I expected, but not the man I met: Dave was short and sturdy, in his 60s, with a Brooklyn accent and an attitude to match. I told him I wasn’t sure Ezra would be able to follow directions — at 4, our son was remote and distracted and rarely made eye contact — but that I could help.

Dave didn’t need my help. He told Ezra to leave his shoes in a bin near the door, then led him onto the carpeted gym floor. Over the next hour, I watched from a bench as this man with his gravelly voice directed my son through an obstacle course of ramps, ladders and slides. To my astonishment, Ezra listened. Following Dave’s directions — firm, direct, precise — my son made his way around the perimeter of the room with quiet intent.

For another child that might have been a simple feat. For Ezra, it seemed nearly miraculous.

I thought of that morning when I learned recently that Dave Rabb had died at 78 after a battle with pulmonary illness. People often ask me Read More »

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How’s the Book Doing? How’s the Boy Doing?

Ezra at camp, August 2012

This week marks the first anniversary of Following Ezra’s publication. One of the questions people have been asking a lot lately is, “How’s the book doing?” They inquire in the way you might ask, “How’s your grandmother doing?” or, say, “How’s your wife?”—as if the book has a life of its own, heading out on road trips, occasionally nursing a cold, stopping off at Starbucks on the way to work each day.

The truth is, it does have a life of its own. That’s one thing I’ve learned this year. When I set out to write Following Ezra, one of my purposes was to create the kind of book I wish had been around when Ezra was three or four years old and we were first learning about him and about autism. I wanted to write something that said, “Your life will be different from what you might have expected, but it’ll be okay.”

What I didn’t know was whether the book would find its way to people in that position. One of the most gratifying parts of sending the story out into the world has been hearing from so many Read More »

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What a Barber Taught Me about Raising My Son

Autism Asperger’s Digest asked three fathers to reflect on the experience of raising a child with autism. Here’s my piece — adapted from Following Ezra — about some lessons I learned in an unlikely place:

 

People often ask me which of the many professionals my wife and I have consulted about our son Ezra has taught me the most. A doctor? A therapist? A teacher? They are often surprised to hear the answer: a barber.

As a toddler Ezra—like many children with autism—seemed uncomfortable in his own body. He would flee from noisy rooms, hands pressed against his ears. Even the gentle hum of a drinking fountain’s motor could frighten him. The texture of clothing so irritated him that he would often strip spontaneously at neighbors’ homes or the supermarket.

When he was three I decided it was time to tame his unruly head of straight, brown hair. He squirmed out of the chair in the hair salon, so I sat down, holding him in my lap.

“Noooo!” Ezra screamed at the woman wielding the scissors. “Don’t touch my hair!”

Despite her attempt to win him over with a lollipop, Ezra resisted, eventually grabbing her scissors and tossing them to the floor. I muttered an apology, paid the bill, and trailed after my son out the door.

That night after Ezra finally fell asleep, my wife finished the haircut. For more than a year, she maintained that practice, doing her best to trim his locks while he dozed.

Then someone recommended Hugh, the special-needs barber. I had to drive half an hour to get to the salon, a simple, stark shop with one thing that delighted Ezra: a basket of plastic dinosaur toys. While we waited, Ezra sat on the floor lining up the creatures in patterns, just as he did at home. Then he sat on the red chair, and Hugh—a stout, balding man—sprinkled talcum powder in Ezra’s hand.

“Now, my friend, I’m going to put some of this on your neck, so it’s not so itchy,” Hugh explained.

Before each step in the process, he offered Ezra a warning: “My friend, I’m going to comb your hair now. That okay?” Before he spritzed Ezra’s head with water, he gently sprayed some into my son’s palm.

“Don’t cut my ear off!” Ezra cried at one point, ducking. “You’re going to cut my ear off!”

Hugh calmly took Ezra’s little hand in his, showing my son how to hold his own ear flap down. Each time he spoke to Ezra, he used the same phrase: my friend.

Hugh told me he’d once worked in a children’s hair salon where the other employees were frightened to work with children who posed challenges. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. “They’re just people.

At one point, Ezra got so antsy that he let his body go limp and slid from the chair. “Come on!” I said, trying to coax him back, but the barber waved me off. “He just needs a second,” he said. He waited calmly while Ezra carefully placed the dinosaurs in a line. Then my son immediately hopped back in the chair.

“Okay, ready,” Ezra said.

Before long, Hugh had finished the haircut. Holding Ezra’s hand, I walked out into the sunny afternoon, my son with the best haircut of his life, and I with lessons for a lifetime of parenting: be patient; follow the child’s lead; explain what’s going to happen next; treat the child with love. And this: they’re just people.

 

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“Learning to Be the Right Parent For This Child”: a Q & A

In honor of National Autism Awareness Month, Priscilla Gillman, an author I admire,  gave me the opportunity to answer some questions about Ezra. Priscilla’s book The Anti-Romantic Child (out in paperback this week), is a wonderful and uplifting read blending of memoir and poetry. Priscilla posted in on her blog. I’m reposting here. Many thanks to Priscilla for the opportunity, her the great questions, and the lovely writeup:

Tom Fields-Meyer has been a writer and journalist for nearly three decades. He was a longtime senior writer for People magazine, where he specialized in inspiring human-interest stories. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.   Tom is a native of Portland, Oregon and a graduate of Read More »

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A “HuffPost Parents” Essay: His Father’s Friendship: A Teen Son With Autism Finds His Way

I was delighted when Lisa Belkin of HuffPost Parents asked me to write a post to be included among this week’s pieces marking National Autism Awareness Month. A few thoughts about friendship:

When my son Ezra was in preschool, teachers told us that he would routinely bump into other children in the classroom. It wasn’t intentional. His internal radar failed to detect the boys and girls in his orbit.

So Ezra would go about his odd pursuits–lining up toy dinosaurs in elaborate symmetrical patterns, flipping repeatedly through the same picture books–on his own.

At a local playground where little girls would gather at a toddler-size picnic table to engage in imaginary tea parties, Ezra would shimmy up a pole supporting the canopy above them and Read More »

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