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Autism, Learn To Live With It.

Saving Zero: Rock the Campers

Dan Burns and Ben
Dan with his son Ben

To read the previous entries in this potential TV show click here.
By Dan Burns

If you gaze long into an abyss, said Nietzsche, the abyss also gazes into you. My abyss was the regression into autism of my son, Benjamin, now approaching age 30. Early in the autism epidemic I wrote a book, "Saving Ben," showing how raising him challenged my values and changed my life. The lesson: Ben is not just a wretch to be healed, but a song to be sung.

Not that the singing comes easily, or often. Raising Ben put a U-turn in my career. I became an advocate for my son, and I started a ranch for teens and young adults with autism. I learned the wisdom of Jean Vanier: "If you enter into a relationship with a lonely or suffering person, the one you came to heal becomes your healer."

With two percent of our kids on the autism spectrum and more to come, we are challenged to answer a question: What do autistic kids, teens, and adults give back to the communities that support them? How is the autism epidemic reshaping our lives? That's the theme I'm exploring in “Saving Zero.”

Logline: A retired gay dad, founder of a Texas ranch for autistic young adults, takes on a charismatic and possibly pathological teen. 



The performers are on the makeshift stage. A BANNER reads “Grand Opening Hope Ranch.” On the stage, a big FUNDRAISING THERMOMETER topping out at $250 Grand. At its foot, a humble TIP JAR with an IOU and some LOOSE CHANGE. A SIDE SIGN WITH a BALLOON says “Happy Birthday Annie.”

We follow JOSH to the VIP picnic table. He takes a seat with ANNIE’S MOM AND DAD. ANNIE’S MOM, mid-forties, professional, an air of competence and authority; beige jacket, matching slacks, briefcase. ANNIE’S DAD, about fifty; at ease in Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt and work shoes. Calloused hands say he’s more at home on a tractor than in an executive suite. Parents at tables to the right and left eat gluten free snacks out of Tupperware and drink probiotic beverages.

On the stage, as Master of Ceremonies, HAMSTER: sixteen, a beardless youth, slight, theatrical, with the elocution gestures of a carnival showman or a Victorian stage actor. Speaks in Shakespearean cadences. A bright, funny, mischievous imp who likes to steal the show.

HAMSTER: What a spectacle! As lofty as the stars in heaven, so be our performers. Start the music!

CUT TO: ARTIE (female, sassy, 20-something, jeans, glasses, sandals. She’s administrative assistant and gopher for the camp. NATE, about thirty, cocky, tall thin ranch hand in buttoned work shirt, silver belt buckle, thumb in his blue jeans pocket. They’re positioned together as judges near the LIMBO STICK. It’s mounted on WOODEN PEG POLES.

ARTIE pushes a button to play Chubby Checkers’ “Do the Limbo Rock.” ZERO films the event with Josh’s shoulder mounted camera, moving around the stage, seeking the most exciting angle. His SUITCASE is in front of the stage.


VAN GO, tall and heavy set, Buddy Holly glasses, wearing a beret and cravat over a Ninja Turtle T-shirt, approaches the limbo stick with confidence …

VAN GO: I’m gonna shake my booty.

… but his chest is too high. He backs up and tries again, with his legs bent at a sharper angle, leaning his head so far back he loses his balance, flails, and falls on his butt.

NATE: He failed. Loser.

ARTIE: Good try, Van Go. We love you.

Van Go stands up, lifts the limbo stick, ducks under it, and walks off.

VAN GO: Who could ever learn to love … a Ninja werewolf!

NATE: Another werewolf.

ARTIE: Be nice. He’s Angela’s son.

NATE (a little too loud): I sure do like helping these fine kids learn to ride horses.

HAMSTER (INTO MICROPHONE): BENJY – Waiter and Student of the Universe!

BENJY is wearing a waiter’s vest and bow tie. He goes under the limbo stick carrying a SERVING TRAY with a set of COCKTAIL GLASSES glued on, holding the tray with outstretched arms. The tray makes it under the limbo stick, but Benjy does not. He stands up, turns the tray upside down, hamming it up like Charlie Chaplin, to show that the glass is glued on. He gets a TITTER from the audience.

ARTIE: Charming as usual.

NATE: Disqualified.

ARTIE: Like you.

NATE: I’ve got qualifications you can’t touch.


GOAT BOY approaches the limbo stick followed by CLARABELLE, his pet baby goat. Goat Boy stops, hitches his pants, claps his hands together for courage, reaches down and touches the limbo stick to get a feel for its height, backs up, claps again, spreads his feet wide and hops forward, then at the last second bends his head to the side to clear the limbo stick. Just made it! CLARABELLE follows him under the stick.

The audience APPLAUDS.

NATE: Looks like we got a winner.

ARTIE: Hold your horses, cowboy. Annie’s gonna sing.

THE VIP TABLE. The goat show continues off camera while ANNIE’S MOM, ANNIE’S DAD, and JOSH confer.

ANNIE’S MOM: Look. That’s our Annie!

ANGELA: It’s great to have her here.

ANNIE’S MOM: We love what you’re doing.

ANNIE’S DAD: It’s unprecedented. What’s next?

JOSH: I see an archipelago of ranches and villages where young adults like Annie can make their own jobs.

ANNIE’S MOM: We might be able to help.

ANNIE’S DAD: We have forty acres down by Bastrop.

ANNIE’S MOM: We could set something up. An estate donation.

ANGELA: Well that sounds just great!


ANNIE on stage, front of the line. She’s carrying an OPERA HELMET with VIKING HORNS. She approaches the limbo stick, then turns around in fear. She can’t do it. ARTIE, standing behind her, whispers to her, “Give me the horns.” We HEAR her father call out from the VIP table: “You can do it, Annie!” ANNIE turns around, passes the horns to ARTIE, hitches her costume up, and tries again. She hesitates. Annie’s Dad signals “Move the stick up.” NATE does. Artie PUSHES her forward. ANNIE takes a few baby steps and bends waaaay back. Her breasts don’t clear the stick. She falls.

NATE: Can’t ride a horse neither.

Artie punches him on the arm.

ARTIE: Shut up and help me with this curtain.

ARTIE fades out the limbo rock music. NATE drapes a STAGE CURTAIN over the LIMBO STICK and raises it to the top of the PEG POLE.

HAMSTER (INTO MICROPHONE): This way, mistress. How you drumble! Up! Up!

ANNIE hides behind the curtain. ARTIE starts a recording of “Happy Birthday” music and delivers a DRUM ROLL. NATE pulls back the curtain and pushes ANNIE forward. She freezes. She opens her mouth to sing and makes the ack-ack sound that some cats do when they mean to mew -- not exactly choking, but a hairball cough, unable to get out the breath that starts the song. She twists her necklace beads and gets the screwed-up face that signals she's about to cry, then retreats behind the curtain.

ZERO in front of the stage. He sets down the CAMERA, grabs his SUITCASE, and heads toward the ranch house.

ANNIE’S PARENTS at the VIP table. They move close together with painful, fearfully expectant expressions.

ANNIE’S DAD: She lost her confidence.

ARTIE: We have a saying here that we teach the kids. Benjy’s been working on it.

ARTIE signs to BENJY, “Don’t give up.” She holds the microphone up to his mouth. BENJY tries to articulate “Don’t give up,” but the words come out garbled.

BENJY: Hoe. Kip. Pugh.

ANNIE’S MOM: The helmet!

ANNIE’S DAD stands up and shouts to ANNIE.

ANNIE’S DAD: Annie, put on the helmet!

We HEAR another drum roll by Artie.

ANNIE is pushed out from between the curtains, wearing the opera horns. Again, she freezes and chokes. Meltdown. She rips her necklaces off and stomps off the stage in tears, humiliated, headed for the safety of her room.

THE VIP TABLE. ANNIE’S MOM gets up to comfort her.

JOSH: We’ll keep working on her confidence.

ANGELA: She’ll get there.

ZERO reappears and strides on stage with a Samurai headband and shawl.

HAMSTER (INTO MICROPHONE): And now we have a surprise contestant, our new resident and Samurai sword master, ZERO!

NATE plays recorded Wagner music – Flight of the Valkyries. ZERO uses the limbo stick as a prop to perform a Samurai sword dance. DASHER runs out to greet ZERO and jumps over the limbo stick, doing tricks like a circus dog. Zero’s performance saves the show. The crowd of parents, aides, shadows, guests, and siblings WHOOP, HOLLER, AND APPLAUD. ZERO puts Annie’s opera horns on his head and takes a theatrical bow.


We hear Annie's quiet sobs over the black screen.



Patience (Eileen Nicole) Simon

Dan, Wonderful! You cite Jean Vanier. He started a system of group homes, L'Arche. Are there any in your area?

I hoped my son could be admitted to a L'Arche group home, but in Massachusetts that is only possible through the Department of Developmental Disabilities (DDS). Sadly my son is considered too high functioning for DDS services here, but he is nothing like Zero, who is not even autistic.

Hope Ranch would appear to fit the L'Arche model. It would be wonderful if you could get it included in their system. Meanwhile, your depiction of Zero illustrates the problem of having the "autism" diagnosis expanded to include cases like him. I do hope this becomes a TV show. Keep working at it, and I hope Hope Ranch can be revived too.


Great totally get it had me jumping of the chair reading it.

Pharma for Prison


Jeannette Bishop

These are pretty gripping, I hope those less familiar with the subject matter also find your series as engaging!


The scene neatly captures these people's varying responses to the limbo challenge. What may seem to neurotypicals as no big deal combines several circumstances that people on the spectrum may find stressful: music playing, being the focus of attention, timing your physical coordination, etc.

I know someone like Hamster, with the singular languages and theatrical flourishes... a very fun person to be around.

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