The Anti-Romantic Child charts the journey of a special-needs child and his mother’s struggle to understand his condition.Priscilla Gilman knew something was odd about her son Benjamin when he was just an infant. While he was slow to hit his developmental milestones, there was something else — an inability to be physically demonstrative or to communicate emotion — that alarmed her most. She began to notice social missteps and motor-skill deficits that kept Benjamin from the typical play of other kids. Literally and figuratively, her son was standing outside the world, not engaging in it.
As Gilman recounts in her new book, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (Harper, $25), what made Benjamin’s problems even more confusing was his spectacular verbal ability: He was reading by age 2 and reciting from adult books not much later. These weren’t the symptoms that came to mind when she thought of a special-needs child.
Gilman and her husband, Richard, both Yale-educated Ph.D. candidates in English, had to learn a new word once Benjamin was diagnosed: hyperlexia. “When I first realized that Benj had hyperlexia, the entire world of special-needs kids was utterly foreign to me,” Gilman says now. “I’d thought of these children as nonverbal.” As she spells out in the book, she quickly learned that hyperlexics are brilliant readers but can’t convey the state of their own minds. They have to be taught, by rote, to say “I” (as well as other pronouns).
The author is an expert on romantic poets — Wordsworth in particular — and the book’s title refers to her long-held expectation of having a deeply expressive child. Benjamin was the opposite of that. But by the end of Gilman’s profoundly moving account, following years of developmental and occupational therapy for her son, the title becomes ironic. As she says now: “Benj put me in touch with the deepest kind of romanticism — its celebration of individuality and unconventional people, its valorization of ‘the bliss of solitude’ and its emphasis on personal experience [and] emotion.”