A series of sketches for parents of children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their relatives, caregivers, and friends. Read Chapter 01 here.
Loaded with gear – my backpack, a Starbuck’s traveler kit, suitcase tumbling out of my arms, computer cord dangling – I lurched to the ranch house, shoulder-pushed my way through the stubborn door, and stumbled through the hallway into my new adventure: fundraiser for Hope Ranch in Cedar Park, Texas.
It had been a long journey. As Chair of the Autism Trust USA, I’d organized a parent task force to conjure up Andy Wakefield’s grand vision: a clinic, restaurant, gift shop, and conference center for ASD teens, young adults, and their families. The idea was to create sheltered communities that would be self-originating and self-sustaining, an archipelago of villages where our kids could safely live, work, play, and mend. Out of a whirl of activity arose an angel investor, Angela, a native Texan who took on the project as her own and re-branded the village Hope Ranch.
“Is the TV crew here?” I was expecting News 8 Austin, the Warner cable station.
“Not yet.” Angela from the kitchen.
I dumped my gear on a card table and dug out my laptop. Bent down to plug in the power supply but couldn’t reach the wall socket. Too stiff. Too old.
He dropped his iPhone and sprang up from the couch. Tall and skinny; torso perched on stork legs, head too small for his shoulders, raven hair, duck-tailed forelock. Hawk eyes overhung by brows that plunged toward his nose, a flying Valkyrie. Able to karate-kick a door in half, rip a telephone off the wall. “A furry creature,” he wrote of himself on Facebook, “dragon, wolf, cat person, and rarely but sometimes a human.”
Zero grabbed the plug and alligatored under the table. The computer yawned, whirred, blinked, snoozed. I rattled the space bar, hopscotched the F-keys, triple-tapped the mouse. No image.
“Let’s go to my woom,” said Zero. “It’s by the hub.”
Zero’s room, a scrambled egg. No way.
I heard a knock at the front door. It was the New 8 reporter, video camera in hand.
“Where’s the crew?” I asked.
“Just me,” said the reporter. “I shoot, script, edit, and file, solo.
“Ok. Let’s take the tour.”
I opened the back door and drew a deep breath of the cedar-scented air. To me, Hope Ranch was a magical place. The mountain cedars and live oaks of the Balcones Canyonlands spilled down through the hill country to our doorstep. Beyond the ranch boomed Cedar Park’s gleaming new shopping centers. A university, an airport, Dell Computer headquarters. Jobs for our kids. In the middle of it all, five undeveloped acres.
“Build it and they will come,” I thought. And they came. Mothers and fathers with their children; teens and young adults with their aides; supporters, seekers, and believers. We were drawn here, I imagined, by the electromotive undertow of the Edwards Aquifer, an underground river beneath the camp, rolling below the range of human hearing but tangible as a heartbeat, the rush of blood.
What the camera saw: a brown dry empty field, wasteland enclosed by scrub brush, dotted with fire ant mounds and littered with horse dung. What I saw: an oasis, a shining village on a hill.
“So what will you do with all this land?” asked the reporter.
“The gift shop goes in the northeast corner,” I said. “Over there, the restaurant, hotel, and conference center. Behind us, the clinic. World-class doctors and researchers. Cutting edge treatments.
“Let’s meet the kids."
Sue, Ben’s mom, had organized a three ring circus. Behind the ranch house, where the chicken yard met the woods, planks propped T-pee like around a telephone pole. Ben basted a two-by-four with brown stain. Sue guided his brush up and down the edge, hand over hand. “Get this spot,” she said. Ben stomped his feed and bit his tongue.
“Picnic table kits,” I explained. “Brookwood Community started around a picnic table in the founder’s back yard. So we chose this project for good luck.”
“Cool,” said the reporter.
Over-encouraged, I went on babbling. “It’s the farm-to-table concept, but backwards. We’ll assemble these kits, sell them along the highway at the Ranch Road gate. It’s how we give back to society, like the Little Red Hen.” Perplexed nod from Channel 8. Made no sense, but the words came tumbling out. “Little Red Hen Enterprises.” I was on a roll, making this up, in too deep in now to back out. Why didn’t I just shut up?
Behind us, Hamster and his shadow, their boards stained and their task completed, bumped fists. “The deed is done,” said Hamster. Van Go, our resident artist, balanced a paint brush on the bare legs of the understructure and blew on his blue-gloved fingers.
Sue cat-herded the campers to ring two, the Horse Wash. Tethered to a shade tree between the corral and the horse barn stood a blue-bridled Shetland. Goat Boy filled an orange bucket with soapy water. Ben dipped his brush, carried it dripping over to the hapless pony, dabbed it on his back, and walked away. Sue called out encouragement. “Come back, Ben, you’re doing a good job.” He shrugged and kept walking . She turned to the next camper. “Wash it, Van Go. Wash the donkey.” He stroked the animal carefully with his brush, as if he were painting it, then shook his head, raised his neck, and brayed.
“Why the animals?” the reporter asked. It was a good question, one I’d wondered about myself. “Caring for the horses, goats, and chickens models a community,” I ventured, as if I knew what I was talking about. “It’s a connection to other living creatures, sharing of responsibilities, mirroring the care these kids receive.” Babbling again. Someone else should be doing this.
Hamster, our drama major, hypersensitive to smells, walked past us, shirt pulled up over nose, carrying a horse patty on a stick. “Such senseless stink will suffocate,” he said, quoting Shakespeare as usual.
“This is a barnyard, Hamster. That’s dried horse poop. It’s fertilizer. Chuck it over there.”
Ring Three: The Garden. Behind the ranch house, Sue organized the campers to break ground for a vegetable patch. Goat Boy, Van Go, and Hamster attacked the muddy earth with spade and shovel. Clods flew. “See, this is a weed,” Sue called out. “If you see a weed like this, throw it into the wheelbarrow.” Van Go struggled to shake the muck off his shovel, turned it upside down, banged it. The stubborn clump rolled off, defeated. Goat boy picked up the muddy glob and chunked it into the wheelbarrow. Cooperation.
I turned to the reporter. “This project teaches planning and goal setting.” I showed him the schematic of the garden that the horticulturist had helped the kids map out. It showed an expanding maze with rows neatly labeled. “We start small, then grow. Sell produce at the Farmer’s Market. We’ll add a greenhouse, a tool shed, an aquaculture pond, and a mushroom log yard. Imagine. This little garden will stretch half an acre back to the edge of the property.”
The reporter finished the shot and turned off his camera. “What's next?”
“Let’s talk to Annie’s parents,” I suggested. “Today’s her birthday.” I herded him toward the BBQ pit and Annie’s dad.
Annie ate. Breakfast at 8:30; fridge leftovers at 9:30. Then she’d make herself breakfast again. She'd supersized herself. When agitated, she lumbered through the living room on her way to the kitchen and back, trumpeting like an elephant, pounding the floor, leaving footprints in the carpet, swinging her imaginary trunk, her head capped with a shag rug for hair, necklaces flying around her, looking for all the world like Raggedy Ann. She collected DVDs, animated Disney movies – Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid – and memorized the songs and the dialogue.
But there was another side to Annie. Behind the trumpeting and roaring were the face of a sweet Catholic girl and the voice of an angel. She played the keyboard and sang Ave Maria to melt your heart. In her room: a ballerina costume, a scrapbook of memories and a menagerie of colorful stuffed animals and princess dolls, neatly arranged and carefully groomed.
“Since she came here,” bragged the dad, “she’s a new person. “Focused, patient, happier. Loves the animals. Making money with her jewelry. Losing weight too. And she has a job! The changes we’ve seen are literally beyond our wildest dreams.”
There was more to see, but the reporter was on deadline. “Six o’clock news comin’ up.” He left.
We were launched, and on our own.
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is the father of a 29-year-old son on the autism spectrum and the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism. Dr. Burns is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism and serves on the Executive Leadership Team of Health Choice, advocating for vaccine-injured children and their parents. As a writer, Dan inspires parents to organize businesses and communities where their adult children on the autism spectrum can live, work, play, and heal. As proprietor of Appleseed Ventures, he is developing and marketing the Fountain of Life, a small indoor aquaponic system for teaching ecology and growing herbs.