Armed with knowledge gained from hundreds of trips to the zoo and scores of visits to the cinema -- to watch cartoons, of course -- Tom Fields-Meyer sat down to write a book about what he knew best: autism.
The result is the book, Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from His Extra Extraordinary Son. Chronicling a father-son relationship as it evolved over 10 years, the memoir tells of how Mr. Fields-Meyer's child, Ezra, grew from an isolated 3-year-old to someone who started making connections -- unexpected as they might be -- to the world around him.
In an era when the Centers for Disease for Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 1 in 110 American children have autism-spectrum disorders, the award-winning book couldn't be more timely. But it couldn't be more different than the literature available when Mr. Fields-Meyer first dealt with the issue.
"I found all these other books that were either really clinical or they made it look like having a child with special needs or a child with autism was just sort of the end of your life," said Mr. Fields-Meyer.
A former senior writer for People, he will speak Sunday at the Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim on Sylvania Avenue as part of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. The 10:30 a.m. event is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo.
At first, the Los Angeles resident and his wife, a rabbi, were confused and challenged by Ezra's asocial behavior. The boy didn't engage in conversation or interact with other children, preferring to line up plastic dinosaur toys in symmetrical patterns.
"My first instinct as a parent was to try to find ways to solve this problem and get him the help that he needed," Mr. Fields-Meyer said. "I figured if we found the right specialist or the right therapy for him or … if I did the right research, then we could figure out what we needed and sort of get on with our lives."
But when a therapist suggested that he take the time to "grieve for the child [Ezra] didn't turn out to be," Mr. Fields-Meyer realized that he saw the situation differently.
"It was really my instinct to just get to know him really well and see how he developed and sort of celebrate the child that I had and help him to be the best version of himself that he could be," he said.
There turned out to be plenty about his son worth celebrating. Now 16 and somewhere in the middle of the autism spectrum, Ezra has developed a number of passions, including a love of Gumby, animals, and animation.
Mr. Fields-Meyer said he probably has been to the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens 300 times with his son, and the family regularly attends animated movies. Ezra knows that 101 Dalmations is 79 minutes long and was released on Jan. 25, 1961, and his memory is so good that when he meets someone, he can tell that person what cartoon was released on his or her birthday.
The family has embraced these eccentricities. So in addition to attending a school with other youths with autism, Ezra also takes animation classes.
"At first he just liked to obsessively talk about animation," his father said. "But then a few years ago he started creating his own, which was a big leap."
One result? A short movie that he made called Alphabet House about letters living together and how they reacted when one of them was injured. It has been adapted with author and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld into a children's book called E-mergency.
There are other things that help, of course, like being the middle child. Ezra has two brothers, Ami, 17, and Noam, 14.
"Ami and Noam don't treat him like a 'special needs child,' " Tom said. "They just treat him like their brother."
That, at its most basic, is what the book is about: getting past a diagnosis to the very human and very fascinating person behind it. What Tom said he found was pure joy. As proof, Tom recalled a visit to the zoo in which he and Ezra encountered baby otters for the first time.
"Ezra kept saying, 'I've never seen this before!' … He's jumping up and down and thrilled to see baby otters. It's amazing to be able to be with someone like that."
Tom Fields-Meyer will appear at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Temple-Congregation Shomer Emunim, 6453 Sylvania Ave. To register, contact Jill Lane at 419-724-0354 or firstname.lastname@example.org.