My Spaceship Knows Which Way to Go

How David Bowie helped my autistic son become himself.

An illustration of a boy sitting in profile in front of a Ziggy Stardust–era David Bowie.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

When my son Benj was a small boy of 4 and 5 with virtually no original language and no ability or desire to play in conventional ways, he and I connected through music. I’d put on “Rebel Rebel,” or “Suffragette City,” or “Changes,” and he’d snap to attention, break into a smile, and lustily sing along, every word and note perfect. He’d even dance, awkwardly but unabashedly, and while he was usually resistant to touch, he’d let me hold his hands while we moved together. When I’d put on “Space Oddity,” he’d grow quiet and transfixed, humming, singing quietly, gazing at the speakers from which the music came.

Because of his severe fine motor delays, we couldn’t start Benj on an instrument till he was 6½, when he began taking classical guitar lessons. He quickly became a proficient guitarist and by age 10 was singing to his own accompaniment. His favorite songs were still “Changes” and “Space Oddity.” But even as Benj’s singing talent became more and more apparent, he never felt comfortable displaying it in public. In school talent shows, he needed a school psychologist next to him to calm his nerves, and he only played classical pieces, never sang. Any applause rattled him, both because he had sound sensitivity and because he hated to, as he put it, “stand out.” At home, I sometimes stood listening to him through the closed door of his room belting out “Changes” in his little husky voice. It was fascinating and heart-wrenching: Would he ever find his voice out in the world? But it was also very, very wonderful. He was, in this unlikeliest of forms, already working through what he most needed to learn: how to become comfortable with change, with taking risks, with opening himself to the unexpected.

High school was a time of enormous growth for Benj, and he blossomed in ways we could never have predicted. Music was central to this development. When he was almost 16 years old, Benj applied and was admitted to a summer independence sleepaway camp for autistic teens.
For the program’s scholarship competition, he made a video of himself playing guitar and singing a song he wrote to the tune of the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” It was the first time he’d ever felt comfortable singing full out, for an audience, without me singing along. It was also one of the first times I think Benj recognized himself overcoming his limitations. That moment sparked a small revolution in his self-perception, a breakthrough by which he consciously measured his progress, as an autistic person, into the world of his own humanity.

In early March 2017, as his 18th birthday approached, I had my last meeting about Benj with the Department of Special Education in New York City. All rejoiced in his social-emotional growth, acceptances to many excellent colleges and universities, and most of all, the fact that he was now a happy, loving, open-hearted boy with interests and passions and a group of supportive friends. That night, Benj told me that he’d decided to play and sing “Space Oddity” in his last school talent show before his June graduation. His reasons: “The song gives me a feeling of sublimity, I know what it feels like to be odd, I’m ready to sing and not just play guitar for my school, and I want to do a tribute to David Bowie.” I thought to myself, I’m going to have to bring a lot of Kleenex to that talent show! A desire to pay tribute to someone who’d died, a yearning for transcendence, a sense of self-aware solidarity with outsiders and oddballs, a readiness to stretch outside his comfort zone and overcome a long-standing fear: all this spoke to the mature, self-reflective, empathetic young adult Benj had become.

The wish to honor Bowie especially touched me. Bowie’s death a year earlier had hit us both hard. We’d played his music again, over and over, watched videos together (the one of Bowie doing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby especially resonated), read the obituaries and talked about them. Benj had rushed to comfort me when I got teary on first hearing the news, thrown a consoling arm around my shoulder when I choked up describing how I first fell in love with Bowie in middle school, and insisted that we start singing Bowie’s music again.

As Benj rehearsed over the next month, he showed me the song and the singer in a new light. Musically gifted Benj pointed out intricacies of the song’s composition, arrangement, and production. The song’s meaning, too, deepened. Under that microscope of attention, the lyrics appeared as evocations of situations we’d faced as parent and child: a tension between the comfort of safety and the need for stretching and daring, preparing to take on challenges, the struggle for freedom and independence, the bleak truths of isolation. I could feel many strands of life coming together: Benj as a little boy, oblivious, closed-off, and musical; Benj growing up, different, joyful, and newly self-aware. I thought of myself and the run of life marked out by Bowie’s career and death. How strange and almost inexplicable that my humming, bounded son would have met his inspiration in that wild figure out of my youth!

Growing up on the Upper West Side in the 1970s and ’80s, as a theater girl, I’d considered David Bowie the epitome of cool: glamorous and dangerous. I’d tacked postcards of the cigarette-smoking, staggeringly beautiful rock star to my bulletin board above the white desk where I did my math homework. I played his albums over and over on my record player. His songs were the soundtrack for my kissing boys at smoky parties. I danced exuberantly with friends at his concerts. Bowie was a messenger from an alluring, alien dimension who broke open and contradicted our upright, ordinary world. But for Benj, it wasn’t about Bowie’s glamour or beauty or decadence; it was about the essential message of his career and life: be true to yourself, forge your own unique identity, be confident in your own beautiful uniqueness, seek sublimity and ecstatic transport.

On a rainy afternoon in April, I walked up the many flights of stairs into the small school gym where I’d seen Benj progress from playing his half-size guitar as a little kid, to banging the keyboards in the Rock Band Club, to stringing out the glissando of long solo classical guitar pieces. Typically I’d felt immense apprehension before his performances. But today I felt at ease and at peace.

When it was his turn, Benj walked to the front of the gym with no hesitation, no nervous glances at us, no self-consciousness or visible anxiety at all. He dedicated the performance “to my fellow seniors, wherever your future may lead you,” and began to strum and sing, with a hushed, almost solemn timbre to his voice. His expressions mirrored the song’s complicated mix of emotions; he was performing his own story, and he was in total command. When he strummed the last note, he opened his eyes with a bright smile and greeted the thunderous applause.

It is now just more than two years since David Bowie died, on Jan. 10, 2016, and seven months since Benj’s graduating crescendo. There are afterwards to all the climaxes. In his speech to the seniors, graduating with him from the special-education school he’d attended for 12 years, Benj again invoked “Space Oddity.” It had become the touchstone by which he was interpreting his experience, and indeed by which he was imaginatively leveraging himself beyond it into the future.

Where had Benj traveled from? What brink had he ascended? He had emerged from the cocoon of his own nature’s boundaries, gained a voice to speak to others, and then stepped out onto the stage to strike up a conversation, all with Bowie’s tunes ringing in his head. I’m moved by the fact that these two opposite natures found a way to communicate: Benj winning the confidence to be seen by others; Bowie slipping out of his self-performance to speak with a plain face and a small voice to a boy stuck in his “tin can.”

I don’t think it’s saying too much to suggest that Bowie helped Benj discover his humanity. Like all of us, the parents, the therapists, and teachers, he was drawing the child’s spirit out into the light of relations that could sustain it. But the opposite is true too. Bowie the wild man, the extravaganza, the extraterrestrial—he was, as he always knew, in desperate need of being humanized, of being understood as merely, fully, human. Everything he did was about its being all right to be yourself—that’s what Benj heard and, in the mirror he held to himself, allowed Bowie again to be. Such acts of recognition are where all differences meet and can be overcome. It’s how Benj gained the power to climb the mountain to launch himself forward, and how he helped bring the Starman down to Earth.