For much of her life, Priscilla Gilman just wanted the people around her to achieve happiness. As a kid, she took on the responsibility of cheering up her father, esteemed literary and drama critic Richard Gilman, who endured bouts of major depression in the wake of his divorce. During her days as a graduate student at Yale University, Priscilla tried to bring out the spirit in a brilliant but aloof, grief-stricken classmate named Richard, who would soon become her husband.
Priscilla did what she could to thrust joy and love upon her friends and family members, so when she found out her firstborn son Benjamin (“Benj”) had a “borderline Asperger’s” developmental disorder, which can cause some to have trouble relating to others, she worried he would never experience relationships and friendships the way most do.
“At times I felt sad because I feared Benj didn’t want or need to connect the way I and others wanted and needed to connect with him,” Gilman wrote in her new book, “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy,” which hit bookstores earlier in April. “But sometimes I felt sad because I felt so strongly Benj’s desire to connect, to communicate, and thought about how many obstacles there were for him in being able to do that effectively.”
From the time he was an infant, Priscilla sensed something was peculiar about little Benj. He dismissed breastfeeding practices, had an inconsolable crying outburst at a Yale academic event, suffered major social anxiety and “catastrophic thinking,” and obsessed over words. Though Priscilla found his behavior unusual, she didn’t realize he had high-functioning autism until a pre-school admissions director said Benj had done poorly on his visit to the school. Though fixated on numbers and letters, Benj hadn’t responded to the teacher’s greeting or other children in the room. Deeply worried, Priscilla Gilman searched Google and found Benjamin fit the description of someone with hyperlexia, which is a subset of high-functioning Asperger’s or Autism.
Kids with hyperlexia possess a strong and impressive affinity for words and language but often lack basic social skills. Instead of approaching a fellow schoolmate by saying “hello,” Benj might recite the words on the child’s hat. Doing her best to give him a positive academic experience, Gilman filed applications for Benj to attend good schools in Poughkeepsie, New York, but he was rejected by many of them. When Benj did get accepted into a school, his teachers approached Gilman with hostility and anger, claiming her little boy’s social stresses and awkwardness created problems for others. One school official confronted Gilman, grabbed her by the arm, and said things needed to change with Benj. Another teacher remarked on Gilman’s sunny disposition, “You always seem so upbeat and energetic, but I know you must be tired. [Benj will] just wear you out.”
In her new book, Priscilla Gilman discusses having a special needs child, raising two boys, leaving her professorial positions at Yale and Vassar College, her divorce, and turning to William Wordsworth’s poetry for solace in the sea of craziness around her. Sharing details on her first book, Gilman recently agreed to answer 10 questions of The Daily Caller.
1. Before the birth of your second child, were you at all worried about how this change would affect Benj?
Very worried! Every mother expecting her second child naturally worries about how the older one will handle the new arrival, but in my case, these typical fears were heightened by Benj’s special needs, which I’d discovered when I was about four months pregnant with my second baby. How would Benj, who so needed structure and predictability, cope with an unpredictable infant and with a dramatic change in his parents’ routine and the daily life of our household? How would he be able to handle the baby’s crying given his intense sound sensitivity? I worried about not being able to keep up the intense therapeutic work I was doing with Benj once the baby arrived, about being stretched too thin and not able to give either boy the focused care and undivided attention they deserved. Fortunately, Benj surprised us with his relatively easy adjustment to the new little being in our midst!