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September 15, 2014

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In his own world, autistic high schooler’s imagination takes flight

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Author Ben Nelson, 20, who is autistic and has recently published his first book “Little Red Flying Hood,” concentrates while creating graphics for his new upcoming comic book alongside his mom, Laura, while working at his home in Henderson May 23, 2014.

Published Author Ben Nelson

Autistic author Ben Nelson, 20, is shown with his newly published book Launch slideshow »

Little Red Flying Hood film

When Ben Nelson was 4 years old, a social worker told his mother that the boy wouldn’t amount to anything.

Ben had just been diagnosed with autism, a social and developmental disorder that affects 1 in 68 children. As an infant, he couldn’t do the simplest motions, like roll over on his back. Later, he would have trouble learning to talk.

But Laura Nelson knew her son would grow up to make something of himself.

“I was so mad,” she said, recalling the conversation. “(The social worker) was wrong. Sometimes as a parent, you just have to listen to yourself.”

On June 11, Ben Nelson will prove that social worker wrong.

He is graduating from Foothill High School a published author and the creative director for an animated film based on a children’s book he wrote.

“I feel proud of myself,” Ben said. “I like showing everyone what I can do and letting people know that people with autism can be independent and smart.”

Ben is a talented artist and started drawing as a toddler. He uses pencil, paper and pixel to craft colorful illustrations reminiscent of a Disney-Pixar movie.

Meet the Characters

Red is the heroine of the story. She is cheerful, helpful, sweet, generous, loyal and sometimes naive and forgetful. Launch slideshow »

Three years ago, Ben won a $1,000 grant to publish a book, “Little Red Flying Hood,” a creative adaptation of Litte Red Riding Hood.

In Ben’s version, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf are replaced by a housefly named Red and a spider named Cranston. Red and her insect friends face several obstacles — swarms of hornets, rain and an owl named Ironclaw — in their quest to save her grandmother, a fruit fly threatened by the spider.

“It’s incredible how his mind works,” Laura Nelson said. “He’s often in his own world, but I see now that that world is a gift because it gave him his talent.”

She wasn’t the only one who noticed Ben’s creative potential. Maureen Clark, a former Foothill teacher who had Ben in her computer graphics class, encouraged him to finish his book and sell it on Amazon.com.

When Clark transferred to Southwest Career and Technical Academy, she enlisted the help of almost 100 students to bring Ben’s book to life.

For the past year, Clark and her team of students at the technology magnet school have meticulously animated “Little Red Flying Hood” into a 15-minute short film, which debuted last week at Southwest Career and Technical Academy.

Ben played an integral role in the production. He created illustrations, picked narrators and met with students regularly to adapt his 48-page book for the screen.

Over the months-long project, the students grew to understand Ben’s condition — and his talent. The students designed a website for Ben, with the hope it will help him get noticed by design studios.

Meet Ben - SWCTA Video

“It’s crazy how fast he’s able to sketch out his ideas,” said Brandon Ly, a 16-year-old sophomore. “We didn’t want to see his talent go to waste. Even though he has autism, he doesn’t let it stop him. He’s an inspiration.”

After he graduates, Ben plans to take online courses in illustration and storytelling. He has several ideas for sequels, including an adaptation of Pinocchio.

In the meantime, Ben is donating copies of his book to all of Clark County’s 217 elementary schools. He hopes to visit as many campuses as possible to share his story.

“Seeing it come to life was a huge compliment for me as an artist,” Ben said. “Thank you so much.”

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