And so this skinny little boy, who wore eyeglasses and was fascinated with cameras and optical devices, was packed off on a train to a military school where he was the smallest and youngest pupil. Fresh meat, to put it bluntly. Several months later, his parents took pity on his obvious misery and brought him home; but what was to be done with him now?
Upon giving some thought to the alternatives, my grandfather decided to move to a smaller, quieter city where the school system was more welcoming. This was somewhat of a sacrifice, as he had never learned to drive and now found it necessary to hire a chauffeur, although he was not wealthy. His son thrived in the new environment, however, and went on to achieve success in his university studies as well. After graduation, his son got married and decided to become a photographer. That career choice was a disappointment, as he had planned for his son to go into the family business. Harsh words were exchanged, and neither showed much willingness to consider the other's point of view. Perhaps they were more alike than they realized.
A few years later, a granddaughter was born—an early reader who often darted away from her parents and spent much of her time pretending to be various fictional and historical characters. She was smart and full of energy, her father said; there was certainly nothing to worry about. Her mother, who felt overwhelmed at times, sought professional advice. There were mutterings about a dreaded condition called "autism." This only went to show, her father declared, that psychiatrists knew nothing whatsoever.
His darling little daughter simply needed more opportunities for enrichment, he concluded, and went on to enroll me in a well-regarded private school. My teachers were kept quite busy coaxing me down from trees on the school grounds and telling me that I had to wait until after school to be Curious George. The principal ended up telling my parents that it would be best for all involved if they found another school for me.
A move to a small semi-rural town improved the situation considerably. The teachers were still somewhat baffled as to what to do with me, but when I got bored, they just let me sit quietly and read a book or draw pictures. There were enough trees and woods around my house so that I didn't feel the need to wander off during school hours, and the girls were friendlier and often asked me to jump rope or play four-square with them.
I grew up without ever being aware that there was anything about my development that might have been considered unusual, other than learning to read at an early age. Occasionally I heard my voice on a tape recording and thought that it sounded very different from the other people speaking, but I just figured that everyone probably thought their voice sounded weird on tape, and I didn't worry about it.
My high school and university studies went well. Although it took me a while to find a job that was suited to my skill set, I thought that was just a bit of bad luck, or possibly sex-based discrimination. It never even crossed my mind that some hiring managers might see me as abnormal. Maybe my parents should have warned me what to expect; but then, I'm not sure they fully understood it themselves.
There is now a younger generation in my extended family, which includes two autistic teenagers. Both of them are well adjusted socially and will be going away this fall to begin their university studies. They grew up attending private schools that were carefully selected to match their personality types and learning styles. They are confident of being able to succeed in their chosen careers, and I hope that they will find a job market that appreciates the vast range of human diversity.
I am cognizant of the fact that many families do not have the same opportunities for school choice, and I believe that this is a major issue that needs to be addressed through the political process. Instead of building segregated schools for autistic students, our society should be training all teachers to understand cognitive diversity; empowering parents to choose the schools that they believe are best suited to their children's needs, by way of vouchers and charter school programs; and funding these vouchers at a high enough rate to allow all teachers to be well paid, all primary classrooms staffed with aides, and all schools fully equipped with modern computers and other advanced technology.