Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Family History

My paternal grandfather, a native New Yorker, had some problems when he enrolled his young son in primary school in the early 1940s. Apparently, the lad wouldn't behave like the other boys or pay attention to the teacher, but spent all his time talking incessantly about his own particular interests. Send him away to military school, several people advised. That'll shape him up.

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.

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  • This was a rare treat to have this glimpse into your world. I can relate to so much about your childhood and early adulthood. I was very aware that people perceived me as very odd and somehow broken, but could not for the life of me figure out why!

    The way you used this background information to build up to your point about education--excellent writing, ABFH.

    By Blogger Bev, at 11:56 AM  

  • Well I dunno as why I might think so but I do reckon as my family history on this goes back to the 1700's

    The Arnolds were literate in those times and some of them were weavers like Silas Marner, a fair trade for an aspie if you know your industrial history. Hey I even have a record of the books they owned and where some of them sat in Nuneaton Church, this is the Nuneaton of George Eliot, so it is not inconceivable in fact is probably impossible that she did not know at least one Nuneaton Arnold.

    By Blogger Larry Arnold PhD FRSA, at 6:14 PM  

  • happy Valentine's day Abfh, and interesting post!

    By Blogger Patrick, at 7:08 PM  

  • Wait, I thought there were no autistic adults??? :)


    By Blogger Club 166, at 7:14 PM  

  • Don't get me started on bloody schools! In theory all government schools in Australia are supposed to meet the needs of all students: regular students, autistic students, gifted students and disabled students. In practice, I know of at least one government school that does absolutely nothing for it's intellectually gifted students (even though the school desperately needs these kids to boost it's abysmal academic achievement test scores), while at the same time it expels it's most troubled and troublesome students and alienates dysfunctional families to the extent that they take their kids to other government schools. I can only assume that the school admin are happy to have students left who require the least effort and cost to educate. This is Australian Socialism in action.

    When I read about ABFH's tree-climbing escapades, I was reminded of a particularly ridiculous episode of Oprah that I saw years ago, on the subject of ADHD. As you'd expect there were tearful mothers with their totally and irretrievably stigmatized sons, and the Moms were telling stories about what a living nightmare it is to have a son who has ADHD etc etc... One Mom was in a real state as she told a shocked Oprah and a hushed audience that her son, when he was a boy, used to climb tall trees way up high, and the son was in tears too and he looked incredibly ashamed of his behaviour that was obviously considered to be grossly abnormal and deeply troubling. Fancy that, a boy who climbed trees!

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 10:46 PM  

  • This is too much like me. I can relate to all of this. I too would leave school or wonder back home during recess. I was everyday in the nurses office. School was very painful for me as a child.

    By Blogger A Bishops Wife, at 7:42 AM  

  • Just chelate the kids and you won't have to have aides in every classroom since the kids will become normal.

    I guess your family is genetically unable to get rid of mercury. It's interesting that this started in the 1940's, about the same time as autism was invented.

    By Blogger John Best, at 11:44 PM  

  • Bev: Thanks much, and I enjoy reading your posts that give glimpses into your world, too!

    Laurentius Rex: I remember reading Silas Marner as a child and wondering what it would be like to live in a village like that.

    Patrick: I hope you had a good Valentine's Day too.

    Club 166: (scary background music begins) We're everywhere...

    Lili Marlene: It's not just Australia, I'm afraid. There are schools like that all over the modern world, and not a tree to climb.

    A Bishop's Wife: I hope all is going well with your family's homeschooling. Have a good weekend!

    Foresam: My father is unvaxed, and he's almost as obsessive as you are about alt-med fads, which I find quite amusing.

    By Blogger abfh, at 5:44 PM  

  • Hey, I found a wedsite of Presidential Candidate Responses on Disability Issues. I just wanted inforn you to the see what you are interested in what candidaties are saying and they are interviewed buy the self-advocacy orgnizations.

    Side-by-Side Comparison of Candidate Responses,
    AAPD, ADAPT, NCIL, SABE Questionnaire

    Candidates on Autism:
    They're Having Their Say; What's Your Opinion?

    And also,I found some self-Advocacy Orgnizations websites. Some of the websites linked to the articles I posted above. Again,
    I just wanted inforn youinforn you to the see what you are interested in one or more self-advocacy orgnizations may help to improve the lives of us autistic people.

    The American Association of People with Disabilities

    Self Advocates Becoming Empowered(SABE)

    Advocating Change Together (ACT)


    The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL)

    Speaking for Ourselves


    Autism National Committee (AUTCOM)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:52 PM  

  • Anonymous: Thanks for the links. For those who are still undecided in the Democratic primary, here are links to YouTube videos of the candidates speaking about autism:

    Senator Barack Obama on Autism and Disability

    Senators Clinton, Allard Unveil Autism Legislation

    By Blogger abfh, at 3:34 PM  

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