Benjamin John Oliphant loved music. He found joy in many genres, but was drawn to rap and dance-club music in particular. In that respect, he was just like many teenagers.
In two others ways, he was not. One was that he was a skilled DJ -- especially in the art of old-school record "scratching." It was like Ben stepped out of a Beck record onto the streets of Niagara Falls. Give him "two turntables and a microphone," and a gathering was suddenly a full-blown hip grooving party. All the cool cats and kitties knew that if Ben was laying down the beats, the dance floor was the only place to be.
The other way that Ben was different was that he was autistic. Ben was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.
This is what the KenCrest Organization of Delaware has to say about Asperger's and the difficulties that people who have it face in dealing with day-to-day living:
"Asperger's Syndrome is the mildest and highest-functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome experience problems in social interaction and often have restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities.
"These difficulties may include eye contact, facial expressions and social gestures; poor peer relationships; lack of spontaneous sharing with others; lack of social or emotional give-and-take; preoccupation with certain interests and subjects; inflexible routines or rituals; repetitive movements."
Ben's family believes that a combination of these two differences led to a decline into drug use that cut Ben's life short last year.
On Oct. 19, 2010, Ben was found dead in an apartment on Ashland Avenue in an area known for drug-dealing. The official ruling was that a lethal cocktail of morphine and cocaine ended Ben's life, but his mother believes that the coroner's report might just as easily have read "Died by falling through the cracks."
Maribeth Oliphant still tears up at the memory of her loving son.
"This may sound bitter to you; I wrote it back in 2005, and it details the early years of Ben's life," Maribeth told me as she handing me a paper entitled "Ben's Diagnosis."
The paper talks in vivid detail about Ben's birth, early childhood, and years of misdiagnosis by the teachers and specialists in his school district.
After being misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia and being an underachiever, Ben was finally characterized as having issues that were "attitudinal."
Thankfully, Dr. Prado at the Monsignor Carr Clinic examined Ben and made a very quick and accurate diagnosis of Asperger's.
"I cried a river that night," Maribeth said. "After all of the years of them saying Ben was slow, when he actually tested out two grades ahead of his peers, of them trying to put the blame for his poor grades back on him, it was like a huge weight had been lifted."
By that time, Ben so hated the experience of school he wanted to drop out. It was recommended that he attend Niagara Academy on Saunders Settlement Road in Sanborn. The school is operated by Orleans Niagara BOCES and is designed to provide a "caring and supportive environment that enhances the academic, social, emotional and vocational skills of our students."
"Even though the size of the school scared him a bit, it was a place where he was accepted, and it was a place where he could feel like he was home," Maribeth said.
Ben graduated from Niagara Academy and tried to get into Niagara County Community College, but the experience of the entrance exams was overwhelming.
"There just isn't help for these kids as they transition into adulthood. Ben knew technology, computers and sound like he knew the back of his hand, but when he went in (to the entrance exams) he was so overwhelmed by the new environment that he froze up," Maribeth explained.
Ben took a job at Smokin' Joe's for a time, but soon found himself entwined in a drug culture that links the rural areas and suburbs of Niagara County with the mean streets of Niagara Falls.
"He was taking prescription meds, opiates, ones he was buying on the streets -- Oxycontin and Oxycodone. He was trying to fit in, and drugs helped take away the anxiety he felt," said Maribeth.
It's a dirty little secret that there are a number of people who live in what is considered the "safe" part of Niagara County -- the "white" suburbs and countryside -- who routinely sell their addictive prescription pain medication to drug dealers, who in turn sell the drugs on the streets of Niagara Falls.
Ben fell in with two middle-aged women doing just that as they were trying to keep their Sanborn home from going into foreclosure. Ben did lawn work for the women in return for payment in prescription medication. One of the women would pick Ben up in the middle of the night, drive him to Niagara Falls, and drop him off to sell the drugs from the shadows of alleyways that have seen far too much heartache and early death.
Eventually, prescription meds gave way to cocaine and heroin. Ben's behavior changed, and his mother became alarmed.
She said, "It was like that scene in 'Panic in Needle Park,' where the woman is sitting there almost as if asleep, with her eyes rolled back up in her head. Ben actually looked like that, and it scared me to my core."
After a couple of near misses with drug overdoses, Ben finally took a hit that his body couldn't handle. He'd found out in the last year of his life that he suffered from an enlarged heart, and the drug speedball that he took that fateful evening was too much to overcome.
The details of his final hours are not clearly known and may never be fully understood. What Maribeth does know is that her son was staying in the home of a known drug dealer and had been to her house that afternoon while she was at work. When he arrived at her home, he had a number of drugs and prescriptions with him, including intravenous morphine with a street value of $2,000.
Maribeth's oldest son, Tom, recognized that his brother was high and had a number of illegal drugs in his possession, and threw him out of the house. That decision is a heavy burden he still carries.
"I told him, you can't do that to yourself. If it wasn't that night, it would have been another. We all loved Ben and did what we thought were the best things to do in each moment," Maribeth detailed.
When Ben couldn't be found that night, his father went looking and found Ben's car abandoned on a city street. There was vomit all over the inside of the car. When he knocked on the door of the apartment where Ben was staying, a man answered and responded to the question of if he knew of the young man's whereabouts with words that will forever haunt the Oliphant family: "He dead, man. He dead."
Maribeth Oliphant may never know just what happened the night her son died. The police investigated, but ultimately no criminal charges were filed. What she does know is that there is nothing she can do with the past, save mourning it, but she can impact the future.
Maribeth has partnered with Niagara Academy to establish the Benjamin John Oliphant Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship will benefit kids graduating from the school and help with their transition into secondary education and adulthood. It will also serve to aid in drug-prevention education and to raise awareness of autism and the needs of those afflicted.
The world lost a kind, trusting and talented soul when Ben ascended to the heavens. His demise is a cautionary tale about the need for proper early diagnosis and placement for kids with autism and other developmental disorders, and also illustrates the evil influence of drugs here.
Ben loved music, and his mother hopes that the scholarship created in his honor will help other young adults with autism find the harmony that so sadly eluded him during his brief time on earth.
To make a contribution to the Benjamin John Oliphant Memorial Scholarship, please mail your check or money order to: Benjamin John Oliphant Memorial Scholarship, c/o Niagara Academy, 3181 Saunders Settlement Road, Sanborn, N.Y. 14132.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Aug. 16, 2011|