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My autistic boy has joined the beat generation

katy lemay The Globe and Mail

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An die musik! (A hymn to music!)

My son is a newly minted adolescent, a big, strapping, handsome handful of an almost-12-year-old male – sprouting facial hair, obsessed with video games, muddled by hormones and an appetite to bankrupt any middle-income family.

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To my complete astonishment and profound maternal delight, we have nonetheless a powerful medium of communication to help bridge both the generation and the neurological gap: music. And this is particularly exquisite for me because my son is a mostly non-verbal autistic boy.

Technically speaking, Benjamin has a number of somewhat unflattering terms hyphened to his humanity: non-verbal, low-to-medium functioning, ADHD, intellectually delayed, OCD, and that old killer, mentally retarded. Yada yada yada.

I shudder to think I felt so crushed and deeply terrorized by all those qualifiers at one time. Now, quite frankly, I couldn't care less about the labels – (okay, other than that labels qualify him for indispensable assistance and grants). He is my son and I am proud to say he is a chip off the old block: He is incredibly good looking and, even more subjectively speaking, he has great taste in music.

I am less proud to say that, once again, I underestimated him.

I have discovered that Benjamin has deeply felt preferences in music, something that I never suspected that he would, or even could, develop and express.

I am embarrassed to think how stupid I was – I had been stockpiling children's songs, and Disney tunes on his iPad, and other than the therapeutic effect he derived from classical music for relaxation and self-calming, I never thought my son was actually a sensitive music lover.

And then, on what became one of the sweetest days of my mothering career, Ben and I were listening to music in our new car, which was our first to have a functioning sound system. I had abruptly turned off that iconic Coldplay song Clocks. Suddenly, Benjamin protested by moaning in displeasure. He hummed the famous piano intro and said "encore!"

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"Ben, you like Coldplay?" I asked.

"Coldplay," he answered.

My face crumpled into joyful tears. (I had to stifle the sobs and sniffs or Benjamin might have slugged me from the back seat. He gets upset when people cry.)

And thus began our latest journey on a beautiful new flight path to Planet Benjamin.

Clocks and Paradise became his obsessive favourites. I too seem to have repetitive sensory needs: I play songs I like over and over and over until my aural taste buds are numbed and I stagger away, satiated.

Along with his appreciation for Coldplay, my very cool pre-teen son has manifested a love of dancing. In spite of some muscle tone and control issues, he exerts all his attention on the choreography I model. We dance together every day to Pharrell Williams's Happy, surely one of the greatest pop songs in a long time. We groove, shimmy, turn, shake our hips, wave our hands and swoop our arms up in the air before finishing in a joyful hug.

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After Coldplay, Ben moved on to Queen classics – We Are the Champions and We Will Rock You – and he took to tapping my husband and me on the shoulder in the car if we forgot to do our seated dance moves. We do some simple but totally cool arm and head gestures that he can imitate. We nod our heads and punch our fists to the beat, and he joins in.

To my intense joy, over the past couple of weeks Benjamin has shown a distinct preference for old U2 songs (and okay, I've been forcing a bit too much La bohème on him, though he is far more indulgent than my husband). But honestly, the kid has an amazingly good ear – he loves one of the best song U2 songs of all, Bad! After his first listen, a horizon-wide smile and happy vocalizations expressed his buoyant mood for a long time after the hypnotic crescendo of drum and guitar. I understood that he was not in autistic "disorganization," but rather, like any young person, was bonding with the music. He had been transported to that zone of musical ecstasy that must be one of the greatest human experiences.

My son will probably never appreciate Shakespeare's King Lear or the stories of Alice Munro, but I am so very reassured and grateful to know that music will nurture his heart, soul and mind for his lifetime.

Discovering and encouraging the complex, sensitive human being inside the sometimes-raging, miserable Benjamin is a work in progress, and one that my husband and I have grown into, embracing it as our life's work.

And as corny as it may sound, I am confident there is no more fulfilling life's work than that which is done with, as Bono would say, Pride (In the Name of Love).

Katharine Cukier lives in Montreal.

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