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Foothill High senior is the picture of victory over autism

Computer graphics student writing a children’s book with aid of parents, teachers

Ben Nelson

Paul Takahashi

Ben Nelson, a 17-year-old Foothill High School senior, holds a sketch of Red, the housefly protagonist of his book. Nelson, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old, recently won a $1,000 scholarship from the Adobe Foundation to publish his first children’s book.

Ben Nelson: Illustrating with Autism

17-year-old, Ben Nelson, works on his first children's book  Little Red Flying Hood at Foothill High School Tuesday, February 22, 2011. With the help of his teacher, Maureen Clark, Nelson, who is autistic, recently won a $1,000 scholarship to publish his book. Launch slideshow »

Map of Foothill


800 College Drive, Henderson

Foothill High School senior Ben Nelson is a precocious artist who meticulously draws colorful illustrations that look like they came straight out of a Disney-Pixar movie.

The 17-year-old computer graphics student adroitly operates professional software, spending hours each day perfecting his digital artwork. Lately, Ben has been carrying his portfolio around, just in case he has to launch into an impromptu discussion about his latest project: publishing his first children’s book.

“This is Red, the protagonist,” he said, holding up one of his sketches. “She’s a housefly. She’s kind and friendly, but kind of forgetful.”

Watching Ben work, it’s impossible to tell that he is autistic, diagnosed with the developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills when he was 3 years old.

“Ben didn’t talk until he was 5 or 6,” his mother, Laura Nelson, recalled. “He couldn’t string together words in a meaningful way. He just parroted us.”

Some parents might have given up on Ben, but not Laura and Ron Nelson.

Ron, a Las Vegas water treatment plant technician, and Laura, an administrative assistant with Henderson’s traffic division, poured their hearts into Ben’s upbringing. They researched behavioral therapies and worked with Ben on his speech and social skills for hours each day.

“It was so hard for us,” Laura said. “When Ben was 6, I couldn’t have ever imagined he could (draw).”

Although learning new skills was a challenge for Ben, drawing has come easy to him since he started as a toddler.

“Drawing is cool, it’s simple to me,” said Ben, an avid animated film connoisseur and Walt Disney fan.

“He draws all the time,” Laura said, laughing. “He thinks everything is a picture. It’s like he has a video player inside his brain.”

Ben’s propensity for art translated well when he entered into Maureen Clark’s computer graphics and animation class during his freshman year. But because of his autism, Ben was forced to keep retaking Clark’s beginner class.

“I thought it was ridiculous to have him do the same assignment over and over, so I started looking for a project for him to do,” she said.

Remembering how Ben excelled at designing a video game character for a class assignment, Clark applied for a Design Ignites Change grant from Design Ignites Change, a collaboration between Worldstudio, which awarded the grant, and the Adobe Foundation, a sponsor, to help Ben realize his artistic potential.

“I thought, ‘Let’s take this farther than just the character (assignment),’ ” she said. “Let’s make it into a book.”

Clark and Laura Nelson began helping Ben adapt the popular children’s story “Little Red Riding Hood” into “Little Red Flying Hood.” In Ben’s version of the famous fable, a housefly named Red and a big bad spider named Cranston replace Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.

“It just popped into my head,” Ben said of his idea. “I thought it would be cute to use insects as part of my story.”

Four sidekicks join Red: Bonnie, a “tough” bee; Franklin, a “clumsy and witty” firefly, and two “spunky and helpful” cricket twins, Po and Ming.

Red and her friends face numerous obstacles — rabbits, rain, an owl named Ironclaw and swarms of hornets — in their quest to save Red’s grandmother, a fruit fly threatened by the spider.

In early February, among all college and high school entries submitted, the organization awarded $1,000 to Ben for his book idea.

“I was delighted and proud,” Ben said.

His mom was too, adding that the award eased her worries about Ben’s employment prospects. “It’s the perfect job for Ben. As an illustrator of children’s books, he won’t need to be stressed with a lot of social interactions.”

Since January, Ben has worked with his parents and teachers to write, outline and storyboard his 36-page book, which is geared toward first-graders. Ben’s publishing house hopes to have his book published — one book for each valley elementary school — by early June.

“I’m so proud of Ben,” Laura said. “He’s so funny though, he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be famous.”

Once the book is published, Ben plans to visit as many elementary schools as possible so he can share his book, Clark added.

“It will instill in children that it doesn’t matter what challenges you have, you can still do it.”

CORRECTION: The $1,000 grant Ben received for his book idea comes from Design Ignites Change, a collaboration between Worldstudio, which awarded the grant, and Adobe Foundation, a sponsor. The Adobe Foundation did not award the grant. In addition, the protagonist in the book, Red, is female, not male. | (February 24, 2011)

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