“Autism Became the Teacher”




November 2010 crept in and then out again quietly. The previous November was not so quite for Rebekah Pope and myself as photographer and producer/author, respectively, of From Heartache to Hope: Middle Tennessee Families Living with Autism. Featured above and below are Juli, Gordon and Ben Liske, one of 18 diverse families who shared their journeys with the complex disorder of autism. The book is nearly out of print now. All book proceeds benefit the Autism Society of Middle Tennessee. More on the book via this blog and here.


Rural Kentucky offered Juli and Gordon Liske few resources and their finances were limited when their son Ben was diagnosed with autism at age two. Undeterred, the two crafted their own rigorous, early intervention applied behavior analysis (ABA) tag team.

Autism, says Juli, a former dental hygienist, presented a journey of change and a path to a whole new world. That path eventually led Juli and Gordon, a former FedEx courier, to Nashville. “A diagnosis of autism can be very isolating to families.” The Autism Society of Middle Tennessee, she says, helped change that by providing information and connections with the local autism community.

Juli authored In The Eye of The Hurricane, Finding Peace Within The Storm of Autism about the couple’s successful intervention experiences with Ben and founded The Brown Center for Autism, which offers an early intervention program.

Once severely impacted by autism, nine-year-old Ben is considered “high functioning” and attends Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood with accelerated placement in math, reading and spelling. His ever-evolving interests include chess, mathematics, piano and golf.

“He is his own unique person who I could not fathom apart from his autism. While not without challenges, autism has graciously gifted him,” Juli says. “Most days he struggles to find ‘just the right words’ to jumpstart friendships. Yet, he breezed through a MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) freshman-level online linear algebra module, followed by a tedious explanation of the rationale behind his solution.”

Juli explains that Ben knows he has autism and struggles within the “Catch-22” experienced by people with high functioning autism. “As parents we worry about his dogged honesty combined with the inability to understand the deceitfulness of others. How will this impact him as an adult? Will he be taken advantage of?”

Parenting a child with autism, Juli says, also changed how she parented her other children, young adults Sarah and Dylan. “I used to struggle with parenting equality. I learned that it was about giving each unique child what they need, not giving each child the same things. I also learned greater patience. In many ways, autism became the teacher and I became the student.”

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