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Boy with autism shines on video, wins national contest

Cooper Swenson, 6, is a photogenic little guy with blond hair and a sweet smile. He’s mad about trains and likes to wrestle with his younger brother Sawyer, 4.

The elder son of Kate and Jamie Swenson of Cottage Grove was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 3. He’s non-verbal and may never speak. He creates his own weather: he can be a sunbeam one moment, a category 5 the next.

Taking Cooper to a public place — a playground, the supermarket — can be a gamble, since crowds, noise or light may set him off. Bedtimes are negotiable; he may scream one to two hours a night, his mother said.

But Cooper is her hero. His appearance in a video with his mom won him a nationwide contest, and a legion of fans that include actor Ashton Kutcher, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Jimmy Fallon, host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC.

“He’s the humblest little star,” Kate Swenson said.

Fallon wrote a children’s book titled “Everything is Mama.” To promote the book, his publicity team announced a contest asking parents to submit a video of their child saying “Mama.”

“When I saw that contest I thought, ‘I have the funnest idea and I think Cooper can win this.’ I had this confidence and I submitted his video and I actually found out within five days.”

In the video, Cooper says “Mama” by using a talking touch screen. The judges loved it.

“I was so excited,” Swenson said. “I screamed, actually.”

Swenson and her husband were flown to New York, where they met Fallon during a reception at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. He read from his book, sang and answered questions from the audience and posed for photos. Fallon was down to earth and relatable, Swenson said.

“It’s like you were just talking to a person at the park,” she said. “It was just completely natural. He sang for the kids. He danced.”

The video was shared on social media by Kutcher and Klobuchar, who Swenson calls “my idol.”

Swenson also posted it on her blog, “Finding Cooper’s Voice.” In her more confessional moments, she writes about letting go of false hope and facing up to the hard truth that Cooper is not somehow going to “get better.”

“As a mom, I can never give up hope that Cooper can talk,” she said. “But I have to move my thinking to reality. His reality is he’s probably never going to talk. He’s probably never going to move out. He’s going to live with me forever. But that can be a cause for joy.”

She’s wary that some might mistake her frankness for whining, which is why she blogs via video these days.

“Videos are fast,” Swenson said. “You can do a video in 10 minutes. The second thing is, people out in the world are really mean, I’ve noticed, when you write something. But when you say it and they can see your actions and emotions, they’re not quite as mean.”

Her job, she said, is to give Cooper and Sawyer the best life possible. She calls it the “fight for our normal.”

That means combating the stigma and fear surrounding autism.

She hopes people who see the video and visit her blog see Cooper as a human being, and not a clinical diagnosis.

“What’s so amazing is autism is becoming part of everyday conversation, where 10 years ago people were scared to talk about it,” she said. “They were hidden in their homes and they didn't do anything. Now my whole goal is let’s start talking about it.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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