If there had been clouds in the sky, he would have wanted them to be cirrus clouds, because cirrus clouds look like blankets, and Ben thinks blankets are nice. But it was a bright blue sky hovering above Lake St. George Elementary that morning, sweater-weather unspooling into a bronzy-warm afternoon, the kind of day Ben Fain was excited to tell everyone about. The 10-year-old with Asperger syndrome is the weatherman for the school's morning news show. And it was his cue.
"Good morning, Wildcats! I am Ben with your seven-day weather forecast," the fifth-grade boy said into a microphone he held with both hands.
Ben has triggers. He can't eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because he can't handle the textures together. He can't make eye contact with most people, but he can stare straight into the camera; and so, in a way, he makes eye contact with everyone at Lake St. George. "Today will be sunny," he said, and then he told them about the highs and lows.
Ben used to have a lot of bad days. A few years ago, his school didn't have Autism Spectrum Disorder classrooms or much of an awareness of what ASD looked like. When he threw chairs and spit at his teachers and screamed and sobbed, they labeled him with a behavior disorder. They put him in a time-out room, what his grandmother describes as a dark closet. It was hard to imagine he'd ever be on camera, under the lights.
Ben always loved science. When he was 3, he could name all the planets, tell you about Saturn's atmosphere, Jupiter's rings, the dark spot on Neptune. Later, his focus turned to his own planet's weather patterns. He rescued a dog and named him Twister Vortex.
Meltdowns would send him under tables, where assistant principal Teri Statton would gently rub his hair until he was calm enough to come back out. Then he'd take walks with the school's behavior specialist, Corey Boyd, who would listen to Ben talk about storm fronts and how the weather moved.
Lake St. George, along with Pinellas and the other area districts, was learning about autism as more and more students were diagnosed. Since Ben was in kindergarten, the number of Pinellas students identified with ASD has more than doubled. This year, about 1,200 students in the school district received services for the disorder.
Statton, training to become a principal, did a needs-assessment of Lake St. George and found a hole where ASD understanding should be. The school started an autism awareness club, had staff do a book study on autism, offered trainings.
Districtwide, the number of ASD trainings available for teachers has doubled in two years, from 20 to 40. That will continue to build, said Lisa Grant, director of exceptional student education.
If you've met one child with ASD, you've met one child with ASD. Just like Ben loved the weather, another child fixated on books. When that boy behaved well, he was rewarded with extra library time. One day, when Ben was in the third grade and taking a walk with Boyd, the behavior specialist thought, "What if Ben did the weather?"
The school had a morning news show, and every Monday a student presented the week's forecast on-air. Ben was excited by the idea, but unsure. He asked Boyd to come with him into the little multimedia room next to a janitor's closet in the school library. He practiced off-camera. And though he spoke a bit quickly and a tad quietly, media specialist Joyce Hall remembers, he did a great job.
And so it became the carrot they dangled to get Ben out from under tables: If he had a meltdown-free week, he could do the weather forecast on Monday.
Certain smells, itchy textures can set Ben off. Loud noises are extra loud to him. He would start to get frantic. "The intensity of it was just so severe," Boyd says. "The light switch would go, and it was on."
"Keep this up and you can't do the broadcast," they'd tell him.
The weeks he couldn't, he'd be so disappointed. "He really had to work for it," says Michelle Maulsby, one of the school's ASD assistants. "You could see him, learning to contain himself."
Ben's aggression started to quiet itself. Last year, at Christmas, the ASD students gathered to watch Frozen. They were celebrating how far they had come, and saying goodbye to each other, knowing they wouldn't see each other during the holiday vacation. Maulsby starts to cry when she remembers Ben coming up to her. "And he just gave me the sweetest hug."
It has been more than a year since Ben had a meltdown in school. More than the weatherman, he now helps with the sound board, and fills in when one of the anchors is absent. "Now here's Ben with the weather," he'll say, only to run around the table and continue, "Good morning! I am Ben with the weather . . ."
He likes to make up songs, about the day, or the other students on the newscast, which he sings to himself before the show starts. Hall has caught him doing the Gangnam Style dance.
Last month, Pinellas named Ben an "Ability Achiever," an outstanding student with disabilities. Last year, his behavior coach, the one he hit and spit on and cursed at in kindergarten, nominated him as a star behavior student. He passed his FCAT exams, and he's on the honor roll.
Looking into the camera, Ben tells his classmates to keep their sweaters handy. He tells them that a cold front will make its way through the area Thursday night, bringing a chance of rain Thursday and Friday.
Ben likes nice days. He's a Florida kid. He does not like when it rains because he can't handle it if his shirt gets wet, the texture against his skin. But he doesn't begrudge the rain itself. When it pours he'll stand under the porch and look. He can spot a tornado. He is always looking out the window, smiling when he sees the cirrus clouds, the ones that stretch high and thin up in the sky, saying pleasant weather is on the way.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner.