In the beginning, as both she and her husband were highly educated, well-read folk, she was not overly surprised when Benj started reading letters at one year old, read fluently after turning 2, and could even read her dissertation aloud with fluency and perfect intonation when he was 2 1/2. The obsession with letters is humorously depicted as he reads everything in sight, shouting out the words on all the billboards from his car seat, reading all the packaging on food products at the supermarket. He loves songs and insists on their being sung word and pitch perfectly.
On the other hand, he has trouble chewing, doesn't like playing with toys, only lining them up. He is obsessed with ritual, order and sequence, clear signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Priscilla learns that Benj's incredible talent with letters is actually a disorder--hyperlexia--which is a sign of autism. Hyperlexia is the exact opposite of dyslexia. Whereas dyslexics have trouble decoding words when reading, they have excellent overall comprehension. Hyperlexics have almost supernormal abilities in decoding patterns in language but have trouble with comprehension. For all his talent in reading, Benj has trouble processing spoken language and getting the gist of a complex narrative. He can't initiate a conversation, but he can recite verbatim lines of the most difficult poetry, even Shakespeare!
Most of what Benj says is "echolalia," that is, repeating what he has heard his parents say. He does not know how to use the pronoun "I." But, he can repeat anything he has heard or read in the past in a context where it can make sense in the present and comfort him.
I was fascinated with this book because the author writes so well, telling her story with immediacy, intimacy, fluency, and empathy. There is both humor and moments so sad or touching that you can't help but cry.
But I was also fascinated with Benj's mind, which I tried to decode using my knowledge of left/right hemispheric differences. Here's what I found:
Benj's symptoms show to me a left hemisphere (LH) that is way overactive while his right hemisphere (RH) is underactive in some ways, over in others. While he can read at a highly advanced level, he is severely lacking in social skills as well as some motor skills, such as chewing and going up and down steps. He's fabulous with details, but doesn't get the overall context. He can recite facts with extraordinary recall but cannot relate to imaginative play. He insists on the literal at all times and cannot understand metaphor or make novel sentences. His sense of self cannot be expressed in language as there is no "I." But, he is so overly sensitive to the environment that loud sounds, textures, and tastes can overwhelm him and make him panic.
What is so beautiful about his story, though, is how his mother and father work so hard to intervene once they understand their son's problems. With a dedication beyond what you can imagine, they persevere in their own private work with him, therapies, the best schools to make him blossom. He makes incredible progress over the course of the book, finding his "I," making friends, playing the guitar, performing in school concerts, even to the point of creating his own poetry. You root for Benj all along the way and come to love this optimistic and buoyant boy, who expresses his love for his mother, his father, his brother and his grandmother with a depth and with words so moving they break your heart. Priscilla's joy becomes your own.
This is a story of maternal devotion that can serve as a model for all of us.