Getting to Know the Family Savant

October 8, 2002

`What’s his, you know … special talent?” someone recently asked me about my 16-year-old autistic son. His special talent? I thought. Mmm ..

Spitting and singing while jumping on his trampoline? Watching the same Disney video for the thousandth time and laughing like he’d never seen it before? But I knew what the woman was hoping to hear: He plays Bach on the cello. He speaks Middle English. He recites the names of the popes back to the 5th Century.

The myth that the mentally disabled should have some compensating superpower–an idea promoted in film, television, detective fiction and the news–is one I encounter quite often these days. The outdated oxymoron “idiot savant,” meaning an autistic person with a strange special ability, has plenty of cousins in the Oddball Prodigies, Nutty Professors and Crippled Supersleuths in the media. There isn’t all that great a distance from the Powerful Nerd in “Spider-Man” to the Psychotic Genius of “A Beautiful Mind.”

It’s a soothing myth, one my wife and I believed fervently when our boy was very young. As a toddler, Walker wasn’t speaking at all, not a word.

All the developmental alarms were going off, for speech is the biggest signifier of trouble, and we knew autism was a real possibility. But one evening at Christmastime around his second birthday, something marvelous happened, something straight out of the movies.

Sitting under the tree in his Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas, he began lining up a set of large letter-shaped blocks in strict alphabetical order.

“Come over here,” Ellen whispered. “Look at what Walker’s doing.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. Our silent boy had lined up the alphabet perfectly and was beginning to take another set of number blocks and line them up in order too. Then he started spelling words: “Mickey Mouse” … “dog” … “stop.” After each word he stood up, grinned at us, hugged us and jumped for sheer joy at his accomplishment. Our boy couldn’t talk, we thought, but he was certifiably precocious. Yes! Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad!

But as time went by, the spelling, writing, and reading began to recede while the silence continued. We still clung proudly to the image of the intelligent kid we knew him to be, but we worried. Once I told Ellen about a colleague who had bragged about her very bright 1st grader, the smartest kid in his class. Ellen said, “Well, but he’s not nuts, right? How smart could he really be?” And we both laughed–nervously.

As Walker grew, I used to fantasize about how at any moment he might stun us with another savantish trick: spontaneously start playing a tune on the piano or pop me with a question about the space-time continuum. But evidence of the old talents grew fainter while his wild behavior–his laughing and shouting and throwing and thunderous running through the house–turned our family life inside out.

We never stopped believing in him, but with time we had to abandon the great myth of cosmic compensation–no extraordinary talent appeared. My fantasies started to revolve around more mundane things: Walker holding an actual conversation, riding the elevated train alone, reading a book.

Of course, some few mentally disabled but brilliant people do exist, enough of them to keep the myth alive. But mainly, life for the mentally troubled and those who live and work with them is just plain hard. The myth of the Disabled Genius, then, can be damaging–by romanticizing serious problems, it papers over the real harshness of autism, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and other life-wrenching conditions.

And yet the myth does arise from a healthy impulse: the willingness to find some wonderful quality in even the “crazy” person. It’s part of our American championing of the underdog and our acceptance of diversity–the belief that even a disadvantaged person can succeed and that just behind strange behavior lives something worthwhile and profound.

The truth in the myth is that the mentally disabled do have gifts–it’s just that they are a whole lot less obvious than that of the compulsive TV detective who spots the clue no one else notices or the hunky genius with schizophrenia who wins the Nobel Prize. Just as with “normal” people, the gifts of the mentally disabled are often hidden, sometimes very hidden, but unique to each and real.

My son’s gift? The clue to it, Ellen and I gradually came to realize, was right there in that scene on the floor at Christmastime as he looked at us and hopped up and down in front of his blocks. We had the right reaction, but we were focusing on the wrong thing. It wasn’t in the alphabet, the words, the numbers. It was on the face of the beaming boy himself, the knack for happiness he had then and has still.

It’s not a headline-grabbing talent. It won’t make the television newsmagazine shows. But it’s huge.

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