BOULDER — In the great room of a campus residence hall, Benjamin Tarasewicz held the floor.

"Can I tell you all a joke? What do you get if you cross a golfer and a library?" he asked.

He looked around to the University of Colorado students there to hear him speak, pausing briefly.

"Book clubs."

A senior at Fairview High School, Tarasewicz, 19, likes to tell jokes, a so-called splinter skill of the mysterious brain that also overwhelms him on bad days with obsessive-compulsive behaviors, anxiety and tics, and makes it hard for him to read social cues, focus and learn in an academic setting.

Those same jokes punctuate a presentation he's given 20 times in the past two years to peers and adults in Boulder and elsewhere, including at CU earlier this month.

Tarasewicz gives a presentation on the topic of autism to students at the University of Colorado who are in a class about disabilities in contemporary
Tarasewicz gives a presentation on the topic of autism to students at the University of Colorado who are in a class about disabilities in contemporary society.

Tarasewicz, an outgoing, social teenager who was non-verbal as a toddler, is sharing his story of living with high-functioning autism. He's on a mission, in his own words, "to foster understanding and help discourage teasing and bullying that kids who are so different often endure."

"It's an important thing to know about people with special needs: We may be different, but that does not mean that we're less," Tarasewicz said. "We have thoughts and feelings just like anyone else."

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and according to the latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Tarasewicz has gained local and national recognition in recent years for his advocacy for people with the developmental disability. Earlier this spring, he was one of two grand-prize winners of the Temple Grandin Award, a national award given to one person with Asperger's syndrome and one person with autism by Future Horizons Autism Publishers.

His 30-minute presentation, "Living with Autism: Breaking Through Barriers," was crafted with the help of his mother, Malva Freymuth Tarasewicz, a professional violinist who has been her son's primary therapist, helper and cheerleader.

Malva has also written a book about their experience, "Benjamin Breaking Barriers: Autism — A Journey of Hope. "

By the time he was 6 months old, Benjamin explains in his talk, his mother was noticing odd behaviors, like becoming easily hyper-stimulated and tensing his whole body in strange ways.

His first words were "book" and "violin" in German, but by age 16 months, those words started to disappear, he said.

He didn't walk until he was 17 ½ months and at age 2, when he was officially diagnosed with autism, he was silent except for the occasional screeching.

Through extensive and rigorous therapy, Benjamin had to learn how to make eye contact, to imitate, to play. Near his third birthday, his brain and mouth figured out how to form specific sounds again.

Today, he is highly social — not a typical trait for people with autism — but Benjamin still faces challenges every day, he said.

"Lately my brain has started looping my language," Benjamin said. "It's like a faulty CD that is skipping or getting stuck."

University of Colorado students in a class titled Disabilities in Contemporary American Society, listen as Benjamin Tarasewicz, 19, a senior at Fairview
University of Colorado students in a class titled Disabilities in Contemporary American Society, listen as Benjamin Tarasewicz, 19, a senior at Fairview High School in Boulder, gives a presentation on the topic of autism. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

He is enrolled in mainstream classes at Fairview, although he plans to stay in high school until he ages out at 21, so he can take fewer classes at a time and still get to do the things he loves, like singing in the school choir. He's had perfect pitch since he was 3.

The autism presentation was inspired by an impromptu talk he once gave about his challenges to a health class during middle school, Malva said.

Benjamin enjoyed the experience, so when his autism forced him to stop doing theater for a time — another love — his mother wondered if putting on his own performance, in the form of a public presentation on autism, might give him the outlet he craved.

It was Malva who wrote the script and PowerPoint presentation, but she said it was really a collaboration of mother and son.

"I initially created it to help Benjamin. My focus is always on Benjamin," Malva said. "Then it just grew. I didn't realize it was going to have such an impact."

At CU, the Tarasewiczes were the guests of a class on disabilities in contemporary American society.

Oliver Gerland, an associate professor at CU, has known the family for a few years through Fairview and a local theater troupe for kids with disabilities.

Benjamin has a unique point of view, he said, and is someone "really trying to change the world."

With people who have autism, "it's often thought that there can be no sharing and there is no desire to share that experience," Gerland said.

Benjamin, though, is a practiced and confident public speaker. He is also a teenager who likes hiking, bicycling, hanging out with friends and dancing.

"In fact, I'm going to prom ... I invited a lovely girl at school to be my date," he said.

For about a month, he said, he assembled a life-size model of a red cardinal from a kit. (He's a bird lover, too.)

"We even made a little bird house for it," he said. "Around the bird's neck, I wrote a little message in nice calligraphy saying, 'Want to have a cardinal time at prom with me?' "

He then invited some friends to watch him pop the question, so to speak.

"I was (nervous), but I understand that's normal," Benjamin said. "She was so surprised and happy."

At the end of his presentations, Benjamin also shows off another of his interests — a poi swing routine he choreographed to Celtic music.

In front of the audience, as he swirls the colorful, weighted flags perfectly in time to the music, his joy in performing shines through brightly.

"It's good for coordinating both sides of the brain," Benjamin said. "Plus, it pumps up excitement from the audience."

One day, Malva said, her son would love to give his presentation in front of a huge crowd at an event center or football stadium.

"A gazillion people," Benjamin clarified.

"The bigger, the better," Malva said. "For Benjamin, it couldn't be too big."

And while giving the presentation tired him, with a little prompting from his mother, he described what it was like to be up there, sharing his story and hearing the applause afterwards.

"It's like I'm flying."

Emilie Rusch: 303-954-2457, erusch@denverpost.com or twitter.com/emilierusch


National Autism Awareness Month

For more information about autism spectrum disorders and National Autism Awareness Month, go to the Autism Society's website, www.autism-society.org.