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'A family just like ours': Special-needs parents relate to story about vacuum-loving boy

Megan Cusumano's son was obsessed with drain plugs as a child. Now 23, his passion has shifted to playing drums.
Megan Cusumano's son was obsessed with drain plugs as a child. Now 23, his passion has shifted to playing drums.Today

Megan Cusumano started crying when she read the story about the mom who surprised her vacuum-obsessed son with his best birthday present ever: a demonstration from a Kirby vacuum salesman, who treated the boy to a brand new cleaner. 

Cusumano couldn't help but think of her own son, Ryan, and his years-long obsession with bathtub drain plugs.

Megan Cusumano's son was obsessed with drain plugs as a child. Now 23, his passion has shifted to playing drums.Today

“That was something unique to my son — and I loved it,” she said. “But I could so relate to what this lady was talking about with her son and the vacuum cleaner. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is normal for something that’s not normal.’”

Like Dylan Johnson, the boy who loves vacuums, Cusumano’s son, now 23, has autism.

So does Nicole Schroeder’s son, who carries a Dunkin Donuts coffee bag with him everywhere he goes. Schroeder said the story about Dylan and the party his mother threw for him resonated deeply.

“I was so excited when I saw it. We could really relate and understand,” she said, explaining how every Christmas and birthday, her son gets a large box filled with Dunkin Donuts coffee bags. “This was a family just like ours.”

Nicole Schroeder's 10-year-old son, Jack, carries a Dunkin Donuts coffee bag with him everywhere. Today

Schroeder and Cusumano are among the hundreds of readers who wrote on Facebook about how Dylan's story, and his obsession with vacuum cleaners, echoed their own experiences raising children living with autism or other special needs.

Cusumano called the story “hugely important” in raising awareness. Although her son now is obsessed with playing drums, she recalled the odd looks he received when he was younger and would carry the tub drain with him everywhere.

"The world kind of needs to know, there are kids like this, and they're wonderful kids," said Cusumano, a children's pastor in Cuba, N. Y. "People judge and don’t want them in public, but the fact is, they’re awesome people."

Schroeder said she would like to see more companies support families with special needs, like the Kirby Company did for Dylan — and Dunkin Donuts did for hers. After she found herself stockpiling coffee just so she could give Jack, now 10, the empty bags, Schroeder's mother wrote to the company. Dunkin Donuts now sends the family hundreds of empty bags every summer, along with gift cards and various company trinkets. 

Jack happily receives a box like this for every birthday and at Christmas. Today

Having an intense interest or fascination in a particular item or area is part of the diagnostic criteria used for autism, said Nina Finkler, director of clinical services of Eden Autism Services in New Jersey.

She said some individuals are drawn because of a sensory element — such as an object's noise or vibrations. For others, the fixation may be visual, like the way a Dunkin Donuts coffee bag looks, because many people on the autism spectrum are more visual individuals, she said. 

But sometimes, Finkler said, it’s hard to give a reason behind a fixation.

“It almost goes to why are some people completely obsessed with mountain climbing and others aren’t,” she said. “There’s some sort of internal reinforcement, an internal gratification. Is it the feel of it, is it the visual, or just the idea of collecting a whole lot of something?”

Rebecca Watts’ son doesn’t have autism but she said she cried upon reading Dylan's story anyway. Her own son, Alex, has dyspraxia, a developmental disorder that also affects gross motor skills. Watts' son also has an obsession with mechanical items. For his last birthday, he got a weed trimmer; for Christmas, he received a backpack blower.

Rebecca Watts' son, Alex, 11, loves trimming yards.Today

“My son is 11 and going through puberty. But while other boys are looking at girls and into Minecraft and video games and sports and texting each other, he’s like, ‘oh, did you see how many leaves I was able to rake up at my neighbor’s yard?’ Watts said. “It’s the first thing he will talk about and it's tough. It’s tough because he’s different.”

Having a child with special needs can be very isolating for parents, who often have trouble finding people who understand what they're experiencing, said Watts, who recalled how emotional she got when reading about Dylan and his love for vacuum cleaners.

“I just cried because it’s nice to see other parents know exactly what you’re going through.” 

Follow writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.