Written Fall of 2012
One of the saddest stories from the Heebner side of my family is about my uncle Norman and the challenges he faced all his life. He was born in 1921, the third child and first son of Albert and Alice (Rittenhouse) Heebner. It is believed that Alice had a difficult labor and delivery at the time of Norman’s birth and that the doctor tried to assist Alice with his hands, but Norman was born with a bloody fontanel. Alice and Albert spent many years making trips back and forth to Philadelphia to find help and hope for their newborn son that did not seem to be developing according to the doctor’s schedule. The doctors suggested Norman go to a special school but Alice and Albert didn’t want that.
Albert raised Norman on the farm doing chores but was often frustrated at Norman’s inability to accurately complete simple tasks. A time that was most vivid for my mom and her siblings is the time that Albert lost his temper and Alice prayed earnestly for God’s help. Albert was in a rage at something Norman had done which may have happened many times in the Heebner household. But this time was most memorable because Alice’s response was to fall on her knees on the kitchen floor amidst the yelling, quietly calling out to God in desperation for peace. Alice and Albert loved their son but were at a loss to know how to handle a child with compromising brain injuries. At school Norman encountered many children that didn’t understand his limitations and treated him badly. One time Norman even ran away for a few days.
Eventually, Norman married an empathetic woman named Kathryn. She said she knew how to handle persons like Norman. They did seem to love each other and loved their children, despite the world’s harsh requirements of providing a steady income, food and shelter.
This kind of unknowingness was in my Benner family as well. My uncle Eddie (born 1913) had classic signs of autism that were never diagnosed.
People with autism may:
- Have unusual distress when routines are changed
- Perform repeated body movements
- Show unusual attachments to objects
- Not be able to start or maintain a social conversation
- Not adjust gaze to look at objects that others are looking at
- Not make friends
- Be withdrawn
- Not respond to eye contact or smiles, or may avoid eye contact
- Prefer to spend time alone, rather than with others
- Show a lack of empathy
- Have a heightened or low sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste
- May withdraw from physical contact because it is over-stimulating or overwhelming
- Seem to have a heightened or low response to pain
- Get stuck on a single topic or task (perseveration)
- Have a short attention span
- Have very narrow interests
- Be overactive or very passive
- Show aggression to others or self
- Show a strong need for sameness
- Use repetitive body movements
Eddie lived in different homes of his siblings after his parents passed away, but it’s uncertain if he ever felt acceptance for his uniqueness. He died a couple blocks from his birthplace, found alone after suffering a heart attack at the age of 75.
Another sad chronicle from the Benner family came with the infant deaths of two Benner boys in 1908 and 1917. Jacob died in 1908 at one year of age from unknown causes, but could have died of an influenza that in that time killed many young children. Claude was two years old when he died. The story is told that Claude was very sick and burning up with fever when his mother, Leanna, not knowing what to do to help her screaming baby boy, gave him a cracker. It’s said that he died soon afterwards. A drink for the feverish boy may have been more effective but who are we to judge? Leanna loved her newborn sons and would have done anything to help them…if only she’d known.