I feel like I’m living my life as an autistic in reverse. I was aware of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome generally, but quite frankly, I never applied myself to really learning anything substantial about them. I had trained as a crisis counselor while I was doing my undergrad at the University of Kansas; Headquarters is the oldest, continuously operating phone and walk-in crisis center in the nation. In the ’90s, their training didn’t include anything specific about how to talk to autistics, but their Rogerian approach and general attitude of acceptance provided me with a good footing for dealing with all sorts of neurodiverse folks.
Then, my eldest son was diagnosed in 2008. That diagnosis was a blessing, to be perfectly honest. Until the school showed us how all the strange, inexplicable things about him actually formed a pattern that belonged to Asperger’s, the leading theory for what was wrong with Connor was crap parenting. When presented with a new situation, my primary coping method is to build a fortress of books on the subject, then read my way out, like you would escape a marshmallow dungeon if you were handcuffed by eating a hole to crawl through. (Hey, don’t mock–it works for me.)
The more I read, the more I recognized of myself. It came as a complete shock, how well the Asperger’s pattern explained pieces of my life that I’d never been able to make fit. The spotlight of memory swiveled back to all the times I’d been called “intellectually advanced but socially backward” in my childhood. My fixations on weird trivia, the First Ladies, native costumes around the world, Sherlock Holmes (so much like an autistic, himself), foreign languages, and others. How much like learning those languages was like learning to “read” people. All my weird sensory issues with fabrics and foods. My strong visual memory and how I see everything play out in my head as I read. My sensitivity to sounds, both good (perfect relative pitch) and bad (loud sudden noises are my only migraine trigger). A million little things, none forgotten, but suddenly in focus.
And while my primary preoccupation has been on using my own understanding of the autistic experience to help unlock doors for my son, the corrective lens of identity and memory also sharpens things that stayed in the background so long, I’d almost lost sight of them.
Like Clarence Treutel.
When I was nine, my mom remarried and we moved to Whitewater, WI, where my new stepdad was a professor of music education at the state university. It’s a gorgeous little town full of Victorian homes and stately elms. The university, with about 10,000 students, somehow manages to be insulated from everyday life, both for those on-campus and those off. Its presence made itself known in funny, mostly advantageous little ways. We had a disproportionate amount of cultural resources–world-class concerts, technology, a great public library. The people of color were most often Indian, African, or Asian, as opposed to Latino or African-American (this has changed a lot in the years since I moved away, thanks to a large influx of Hispanic workers for the big farms all around town).
Clarence was probably in his 50s when I met him, a perpetually smiling man with Mad Men-styled glasses and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut. He had an old bicycle that he rode sometimes, but mostly just walked along the sidewalks around town. He’d known my dad for a long time; my dad was very kind to him, and it didn’t occur for our family to treat him otherwise. He offered to walk my brother, sister, and me to and from our new school, a little less than a mile each way.
As we walked and talked, we got on well with him. His sense of humor and world outlook was that of a sixth-grade boy, generally, except for when it came to his interests. On town history, radio shows, old movies and TV, and professional wrestling, he could hold court. He was the only person I’d ever met who remembered as many facts, as clearly, as I did, and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t know what autism was, then, and he wouldn’t have known either, even if his mom and he hadn’t been Christian Scientists, which kept them from ever getting a diagnosis. But he was my first contact with a mind like mine.
Only when the school year got fully underway did I start getting questions about why I was spending time with Clarence. “He’s so weird,” my classmates would say. “Did he ask you to sign his bike seat? Don’t do it. My brother did, and he, like, talked to him for years! Like they were friends.” I noticed how the older kids would abuse him as we went past the junior high; they danced around him, chanting stupid taunts, accusing him of unspeakable things, occasionally daring to take a swipe at his body or bike. He would scowl and wave them off, trying to come back with clever retorts, sometimes. But mostly, he just held his chin firm, sadness in his grey eyes. I learned how to chase that look away by asking him about his favorite things.
Just like I do now for my son, when the world makes him so unbearably sad.
His mother died around the time I graduated from high school, leaving him alone; his father and brother had died quite some time earlier. My parents became his Powers of Attorney, and they continued to treat him with care, patience, and affection until they moved away in 1995. Another family took over his care. I heard that Clarence died in 2002, but it turns out he’s still around–a good friend back home corrected my misinformation, much to my happiness.
Don’t bother looking for him on the Internet. I did. He’s not there. There’s a 2002 Walworth County tax record for the property where he lived. That’s all. No pictures, no mention anywhere. Like he doesn’t exist. Like he hasn’t walked so many generations of kids to school, their self-elected protector. Like he hasn’t learned to stop across the street, so the parents can’t complain that he was a pedophile, and the bullies can’t be heard so loudly. I wish I had a picture, so you could see his kindness. But that absence tells an important story, too.
I’m so afraid, when I think of all the autistic kids who are aging out of the schools and social services, adults as alone as Clarence, always outside looking in. How many of them will find families and friends to give them help and love? How many of them don’t know how to ask for it? How many of us will see them and judge the surface, never taking the time to find out what chases away the sadness in their eyes?