It was Mr. Carlock, one of my science teachers, who became my most important mentor in high school. After I was thrown out of regular high school, my parents enrolled me in a small boarding school for gifted students with emotional problems. Even though I had scored 137 on the Wechsler IQ test when I was twelve, I was totally bored with schoolwork, and I continued to get lousy grades. The other teachers and professionals at the school wanted to discourage my weird interests and make me more normal, but Mr. Carlock took my interests and used them as motivators for doing schoolwork. When I talked about visual symbols such as doors, he gave me philosophy books.
Likewise, the psychologist and psychiatrist wanted me to get rid of my squeeze machine, but Mr. Carlock defended it and went a step further toward helping me direct my interests and energies. He told me that if I wanted to find out why it relaxed me, I had to learn science. If I studied hard enough to get into college, I would be able to learn why pressure had a relaxing effect. Instead of taking my weird device away, he used it to motivate me to study, get good grades, and go to college.
Mr. Carlock then introduced me to the scientific indexes, such as the Psychological Abstracts and the Index Medicus. Real scientists, I learned, do not use the World Book Encyclopedia. Through the indexes I could find the world ‘s scientific literature. In the mid-sixties there were no computerized scientific indexes. We didn ‘t even have photocopy machines in the public library. Each entry from an index had to be copied into a notebook by hand. Searching the scientific literature was real work in those days. Mr. Car-lock took me to the library and taught me how to do this and take the first step toward becoming a scientist. These were the books the real scientists used.
Mr. Carlock ‘s training served me well. Later in life, when anxiety attacks were tearing me apart, I was able to research what medication I needed in the library. Through the Index Medicus I found the answers.
Many children with autism become fixated on various subjects. Some teachers make the mistake of trying to stamp out the fixation. Instead, they should broaden it and channel it into constructive activities. For example, if a child becomes infatuated with boats, then use boats to motivate him to read and do math. Read books about boats and do arithmetic problems on calculating boat speed. Fixations provide great motivation. Leo Kanner stated that the path to success for some people with autism was to channel their fixation into a career. One of his most successful patients became a bank teller. He was raised by a farm family who found goals for his number fixation. To motivate him to work in the fields, they let him count the rows of corn while the corn was being harvested.
Dr. Kanner also noted that an autistic person ‘s fixations can be their way to achieve some social life and friends. Today, many people with autism become fascinated with computers and become very good at programming. An interest in computers can provide social contacts with other computer people. The Internet, the worldwide computer network, is wonderful for such people. Problems that autistic people have with eye contact and awkward gestures are not visible on the Internet, and typewritten messages avoid many of the social problems of face-to-face contact. The Internet may be the best thing yet for improving an autistic person ‘s social life. Tom McKean said when he was a college student that computers were a godsend because he could communicate with other people and not have to concentrate on trying to talk normally.
Teachers need to help autistic children develop their talents. I think there is too much emphasis on deficits and not enough emphasis on developing abilities. For example, ability in art often shows up at an early age. At meetings, parents, teachers, and people with autism have given me astonishing drawings by very young children. Autistic children as young as seven will sometimes draw in three-dimensional perspective. One time I visited a school where a twenty-year-old autistic man was drawing beautiful airport pictures on notebook paper. Nobody was working with him to develop this talent. He should have been taking courses in drafting and computer drawing.
Tom McKean became frustrated during a college computer programming course because the professor flunked him for finding a better way to write a program. My guess is that the professor may have been offended by Tom ‘s direct manner, not understanding that being direct to the point of rudeness sometimes is a characteristic of autism. Tom would walk up to the blackboard and erase and correct his professor ‘s example. In his book Soon Will Come the Light, Tom wrote, “Look, if we did it this way instead, we could save four or five lines of code. If I was looking for a job as a programmer, I would not have been hired if I used the code he [the professor] insisted on. ” Tom was frustrated and confused when he failed the course. A more creative professor would have challenged him with more interesting and difficult program writing.
Teenagers and adults with autism need to build on their strengths and use their interests. They should be encouraged to develop abilities in fields such as computer programming, engine repair, and graphic arts. (Computer programming is also an excellent field because social eccentricity is tolerated.) Autistics also need mentors to explain the ways of the world. I have helped many autistic adults by explaining to them that they think differently from other people. It makes it easier to figure out what and why things are going on when one learns that other people ‘s actual thinking processes are different. Video cameras and tape recorders can be very useful in teaching social interactions. When I look at videotapes of some of my old lectures, I can see the things I did wrong, such as using odd voice patterns. Teaching a person with autism the social graces is like coaching an actor for a play. Every step has to be planned. This is one reason that Mr.Carlock did more for me than teach me science. He spent hours giving me encouragement when I became dejected by all the teasing by classmates. Mr. Carlock ‘s science lab was a refuge from a world I did not understand.
When I became interested in something, I rode the subject to death. I would talk about the same thing over and over again. It was like playing a favorite song over and over on the stereo. Teenagers do this all the time, and nobody thinks that it is odd. But autism exaggerates normal behavior to a point that is beyond most people ‘s capacity for understanding. For example, many people thought the way I perseverated on my door symbols was weird and tried to get me to get rid of them. It took someone like Mr. Carlock to help me channel such fixations.