Vignette One - Floating
He floated near the ceiling, up in the front right corner of the classroom. Looking down, the six year old boy could see the top of his teacher's head and the faces of his classmates. Further down the row closest to the door he saw himself watching and listening to the teacher. The boy felt like Superman since he could now fly.
He would often imagine leaving his body during times of increased stress, caused in part by the teacher herself. She wasn't exactly a mean woman, but had a harsh manner that frightened him. At home in the mornings he would sometimes become nauseous from the dread at the thought of going to school. This was made worse by the apprehension he felt with the anticipation of trying to interact with his classmates. He would continue to have a knot in his stomach every morning before school for the next twelve years.
Vignette Two - Focus
The monster was attacking him again. Its hairy paws came out of the igloo through holes on either side of the young boy's head as he stood strapped with his back to the outside, and with its huge claws the polar bear began tearing the flesh from the child's face.
The 3rd grader's nightmare had started just a few days after his delirium from a high fever had subsided. His illness began as a case of mumps on one side of his face and then spread to the other side. His body temperature rose to 105 degrees and he became delirious. He would scream accusations at his older brother who, along with their father, would sometimes have to hold the boy down as he thrashed around on the bed. At the family doctor's instruction the parents would put the boy into the bathtub and pour ice cubes on him to reduce his fever. At times, when the fever would reverse and become a deep chill, they would cover him with an electric blanket and layers of other blankets on top of that. In the mornings the boy would often find that his eyelashes were caked with matter, and that he needed to scrape the stuff off in order to pull his eyelids apart. His dreams during this illness were in psychedelic colors, mostly filled with glowing orange and intense purple.
Eventually the sickness subsided and the boy was able to get up from bed. As he sat on the couch in the living room his mother handed him a can of root beer. After a sip the boy put the soda can down on the coffee table in front of him. He stared at the can, and a strange sensation came over him. The can took on an unusual importance. As he fixated on it the rest of the world faded away, while at the same time he was still aware of his mother's activities in the kitchen. He couldn't seem to pull his attention away from the can, and this frightened him so he called out for his mother to return to him.
Vignette Three - Warped
Red and black, along with simple geometric shapes, which together seemed to represent mathematical symbols and equations. The images came unexpectedly, and uncontrollably. They flashed over and over in the 6th grader's mind as he worked at his self-paced math studies. At other times all the little noises in the room seemed to crash in on him, as if he were at the bottom of a large bowl with sound pouring in over the edges and enveloping him. He later read that schizophrenics had repetitive and persistent thoughts, and that their senses might be exaggerated to the point of driving them crazy.
"Am I schizophrenic?" he wondered.
It would be several more years before he had a good answer.
Chapter One - Transitions
"You're on a cusp!" declared the thin framed high school teacher.
"A cusp," echoed his student, a boy in his junior year. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"You have an interest in astrology, no?" the sandy haired instructor continued.
"No, that was a misprint in the yearbook. It should have said 'astronomy'. I like science, Dr. Yoeder!" corrected Monte. He smiled slightly, eager to point out their common area of interest.
"Ah yes, I see. Then perhaps that was not a good analogy. In any case, a cusp is a point of transition, like being at the upper end of a state of being which is on the edge of another state of being."
"You mean I'm in-between normal people and people like me but whose problems are more severe?"
"Yes, that's a good way of thinking about it. It's as if you stand inside a house which is inhabited by the more severe cases. You're looking out a window at the normal world, while those more strongly affected individuals inside the house are not able to approach the window, and perhaps not even aware that an outside world exists. Those outside the house can see you if they know how to look in the window," the doctor explained.
"But most of the normal people don't even bother to look, do they? They walk by the house without paying any attention to what goes on inside." The young man spoke softly as his eyes rolled to the side, and he seemed to be talking more to himself than to his instructor.
Simile comes easily to him, thought Dr. Yoeder. I'll be able to communicate more effectively with him in this way. He nodded to the boy, who had returned his attention to his teacher and was looking for confirmation of his comment. Dr. Yoeder felt assured he had found a way to bridge the gap that had plagued their conversations recently.
The doctor had moved to this small town in the Midwest a year earlier, in 1977. In his late thirties now, the research scientist's background was in neurophysiology, specializing in the human brain and memory. Along with his colleagues he had developed a model of memory creation which contradicted a long held tenet, and which would garner some attention during the resurgence of interest in neural networks a couple of decades later. His model implied consciousness, which was a taboo subject among neuroscientists at the time. He was also a student of the history of science, and enjoyed unorthodox ideas which he spread generously throughout his classes. At one point he would tell his students about cells known as glia, which were generally thought to be just a kind of glue between other cells, but which he suggested were more important than that in brain functioning.
He began his new position at the high school by introducing two new courses to the school's curriculum. The course called "Brains" concerned the human mind, covering mainly the higher mental processes, while the other was to cover the history of science itself, and centered around the idea that gaps in scientific knowledge could best be filled in by using an interdisciplinary approach. He called that one "Ignorance". These new courses were geared towards advanced students, and covered ground normally not taught until college level, if at all. He felt this approach would be the best use of his talents, and he was looking forward to beginning the Fall semester.
It wasn't long into the first few days when he began to notice one student who was unusually quiet, who would often only speak in short phrases and only when a topic interested him. The boy had a generally apprehensive manner, especially when he was asked to talk in class. For a while Dr. Yoeder considered that he might have selective mutism. The teenager also showed little emotion, with a kind of flattened affect, and this behavior began to alarm Dr. Yoeder because he knew this could be a sign of emerging schizophrenia. He decided to get to know this student better.
"Today we'll continue our talk about sensory perceptions," Dr. Yoeder began, somewhat later during the school's first semester. "Just as we've discussed the way in which some people think in a more visual style, there are some people who experience sensory input in ways others would find strange."
The students had their full attention on the professor, and were eager to absorb more of his fascinating instruction.
"Some of these people," he continued, "claim that they have two of their senses mixed together so that, for instance, certain numbers will appear in certain colors, or a sound will cause a certain taste in their mouth, and so on. This is called synesthesia."
Several students laughed in nervous disbelief at this news, not sure whether the rather enigmatic teacher was joking or not.
The instructor turned his attention to Monte, and together they determined that the boy did not have what was typically thought of as synesthesia. The doctor continued by asking Monte how he experienced time. A little reluctantly, Monte described how he saw days of the week as a series of colored bands, months like the hours on a clock face, and years as a long sinewy wire stretching through space. The doctor said this was not the kind of thing normally considered a "combination of senses", but Monte argued that it was a combination of the sense of time with the sense of vision. The doctor encouraged critical thinking in his students, and was glad to see the teenager express his opinion. Dr. Yoeder made a note in his journal, which he kept locked in his desk whenever he was not in the room.
Then the doctor asked the subject of his concern "Monte, how do you experience music?"
The other students looked at Monte, whom they had often sensed was different from them in ways they didn't understand. Monte, looking perplexed, replied "Um, I guess I'm not sure." He raised his eyebrows and looked at his instructor, hoping his answer seemed honest and not evasive. Speaking in front of his peers made him very nervous, and he had a fear of exposing his differences to them.
"Would you take time between now and tomorrow's class and think about my question?" Dr. Yoeder asked. Not giving Monte time to decline, the doctor continued his oration on another subject. He would often have the boy ruminate overnight on a topic, and Monte could see how this would allow his subconscious to help him work out his thoughts.
The next day Monte told Dr. Yoeder before class that he had an answer to the doctor's inquiry, but was not sure he cared to share it with the class. The doctor understood Monte's anxiety, and agreed to speak with him privately before class began.
Off to the side of the science room, near the window panes where the autumn sunlight entered just enough to brighten their talk, the two of them sat facing each other. The doctor had pulled a chair over in front of Monte, who was leaning forward in the seat of a school desk, impatiently waiting to describe his newfound self-knowledge to his favorite teacher.
"So, you've thought about my
" the doctor began, but was interrupted when Monte began chattering away unexpectedly about his realization that he experienced music in a kind of physical way, feeling it as shapes and textures which moved through the air around him, and changed as the music changed. He gestured excitedly as he spoke, his mouth in a grin while his eyes focused off to one side of the instructor's head.
Dr. Yoeder's face dropped, and he sank back in his chair. His surprise wasn't due so much to what the student had said, but to his sudden shift to an enthusiastic manner. The doctor had noted other behaviors in the boy such as poor eye contact, lip reading, and sensitivities to light and sound. Now it dawned on him what this was! Monte's condition was not schizophrenia, and it was more than being selectively mute. The doctor had seen these characteristics before, but not in someone at this intelligence level. He thrust out his arm and forefinger and with an astonished look on his face said excitedly "You're autistic!"
Monte's monologue continued for a few words until he was able to catch himself. He abruptly stopped talking, and looking quizzically at the teacher he asked calmly "I'm what?" Monte had always enjoyed reading popular books and magazines on science but didn't know what that funny sounding little word meant.
Dr. Yoeder pulled himself together and brushed his pupil's comment aside, saying "Never mind. Let's continue with our discussion, shall we?" Monte gladly picked up where he had left off, but noticed that the doctor seemed slightly distracted for the rest of the short interview.
Chapter Two - Something New
"You shouldn't be able to do that!" exclaimed Dr. Yoeder, in a kind of happy perplexity. His hair waved slightly as he leaned back. Monte, sitting across from the doctor, had a look on his face as if to say "But I can do it, anyway." The instructor, in his usual green corduroy jacket with tan elbow patches, had been giving Monte comprehension tests to gauge his ability to grasp concepts like sarcasm and irony. Autistics were not supposed to be able to grasp those concepts, but Dr. Yoeder had begun suspecting that Monte's intelligence had allowed him to figure concepts out in a way not documented in the literature on autism.
"You're not supposed to exist," the doctor told the boy. They had continued to talk between classes on a nearly daily basis as the Fall semester continued. "Most visual thinkers like you can only handle real-world types of thought problems, but you seem to grasp abstract concepts easily as well," the doctor explained.
Monte paused, and reflected on this news. His body language did not indicate his mood at times like these, and to the doctor he appeared to merely be waiting to continue the discussion.
"Would you be able to talk with me tomorrow for a longer session?" the doctor continued.
"Well, I'm not sure I'd really be comfortable with that..." Monte replied hesitantly.
"My colleagues are working with boys who have more severe problems than you," the doctor continued, "and by talking with you I might be able to aid them in better understanding the boys they're dealing with."
"So this could help other people, if I cooperate with you?" Monte asked.
Dr. Yoeder nodded.
"Could I talk to your colleagues?" the boy asked.
"You don't need them, because you have me!" the doctor replied, in a mock self-important moment. Monte suspected that his instructor was protecting him in some way, but he didn't know how.
Monte finally agreed to continue their discussions. "Now go play with your peers," the doctor ordered, sternly but with affection. Their first in-depth session would begin the next day.
Dr. Yoeder began that session by explaining some of the characteristics traditionally associated with autistics. They often liked spinning objects, for instance. He said that as a boy he himself had been fascinated with the spinning blades of fans, and was still tempted to stick his fingers in them. Monte replied that he liked spirals, and that he was trying to write a computer program that would generate a spiral on the personal computers the school had just bought.
The doctor continued by describing how autistics were known to collect objects that others would consider odd, and to arrange groups of objects in patterns. Monte thought back and recalled how as a child he would store various small discarded items, which he had found lying around his neighborhood, under the porch of his home. Under some hedges on the other side of the house he had also started a collection of grass, bark, and twigs which he put into small orderly piles grouped by size and material. His collection was found and destroyed by his older brother who thought it was weird.
His instructor asked Monte if he remembered having temper tantrums when he was younger, and the boy said he could remember one in particular where he lost a foot race to a girl. He was wearing his new sneakers that were advertised as making you able to run faster, and he imagined himself blazing along like the Road Runner cartoon character. His sister was standing near the front door of their house at the end of the sidewalk, while the boy and his opponent stood ready at the other end. The race started and he had a slight lead but then tragedy occurred as he tripped and fell to the ground. He got up and expected a rematch, but he became infuriated when he saw his sister and the little girl laughing at him and saying that the girl had won. Unfair! He rushed at them with his right hand clenched but went past them and plunged his fist through one of the small plate glass windows in the front door. Blood started dripping from the right side of his hand as he stood motionless. They were able to slowly remove his arm from the window and pull some small shards of glass out of the cut. Luckily the bleeding stopped after a while, but Monte's wrist ended up with a permanent scar to remind him to keep his anger under control.
Some days after the latest session with his instructor Monte was working at one of the school pc's when an older student walked in and stood beside him, taking an interest in what he was doing. After a short conversation, Sam asked "You understand that Dr. Yoeder wants to help you, don't you?" Without looking up, Monte nodded and replied "I'm trying to understand it, Sam." Sam spoke a few more encouraging words, and then left the room.
As the school year continued, so did the professor's investigation of the young student. By spring the boy was feeling much more comfortable with opening up to his teacher. They were finding that his introspective nature served him well in these tests.
"I feel sped up, and turned around," explained Monte, while gesturing first by making a circle in the air perpendicular to his body using his index finger, and then twisting his cupped hand right to the left through the air in front of him.
They had been discussing Monte's ability to understand his own motivations. Dr. Yoeder explained to Monte that the boy was more in touch with his subconscious than most people.
"Why don't the words come out the same way I'm thinking them?" the boy continued in frustration. "I have lucid conversations in my head, but I feel like I'm short-circuiting my own reactions," said Monte.
"That's a good way of putting it," stated the doctor. "In a way you're a natural scientist, and you analyze everything you do before you act." He suggested to Monte that whenever the boy couldn't think of a conversational reply he should use the phrase "I have no response to that." Monte had sheepishly admitted that he "copied people" throughout his life in order to learn how to interact better, and the doctor had explained that Monte mentally stored behaviors and comments to use in conversations in a kind of mental library, and that like a little helper robot his mind would go fetch the appropriate reply when he needed it. Sometimes there was a glitch in the robot's programming, and it would retrieve an inappropriate response, or none at all.
"Most people are more outwardly focused, and react from an intuitive understanding of the intentions of others," the doctor explained as he strode back and forth at the front of the room.
Monte thought for a moment and said "I can't read your mind, Dr. Yoeder."
The instructor paused, turned toward Monte and asked "What did you say?"
The boy repeated what he had said, and the doctor proceeded to explain that this "mind reading" was inborn for most people, and how it was thought to not work as well in the minds of those with autism.
During class Dr. Yoeder would sometimes appear to lose his train of thought at the chalkboard, and get stuck on a word or phrase, like an absent-minded professor. Monte thought he caught the doctor smiling to himself on a couple of occasions when Monte was able to complete the missing thought for his instructor. Perhaps, Monte speculated, the doctor was testing his ability to read his mind.
One day Monte was about to enter the classroom when he froze, unable to comprehend the scene in front of him. Someone had rearranged all the student desks so they faced different directions, and this confused him to the point where he was unable to move. He stood as if frozen. After the other students slowly chose a seat, Monte was finally able to move a little nervously towards the remaining untaken one, and sat down slowly as if this strange object might suddenly explode. Dr. Yoeder began the session, but Monte couldn't concentrate. His seat wasn't quite facing forward, and he couldn't relax while this change in his usual environment continued. Eventually the doctor allowed the students to put their desks back in place, and he explained to them how a need for order and routine affected some people more than others. Monte felt this applied to him on some deep level.
Later, as he walked by the teenager sitting in his school chair, the doctor asked Monte "Are you rocking?"
"No, I'm vibrating," the boy replied, a slight smirk crossing his face as his upper body continued to move quickly slightly forward and backward. He remembered that Dr. Yoeder had talked in class about how autistic people tended to rock back and forth, and that this was called "stimming", as if they were trying to stimulate themselves. Monte commented that it felt like the opposite to him, in that it was to relieve anxiety, not to become more stimulated.
As their sessions continued over the next few weeks, Monte's classmates noticed that Dr. Yoeder was rescheduling his classes to talk to some of the advanced students individually, and many students wondered what was going on.
As summer approached Trista, a girl in Monte's class, asked him "What in the world have you and Dr. Yoeder been talking about for so long in there?"
Monte replied "It was about a lot of different things, and it's hard to describe. Maybe I'll be able to tell you about it someday, Trista."
"Dr. Yoeder, why is Monte the way that he is?" Trista asked the next day during class. She and her classmates knew something was up, and had suspected that the doctor was finding out details about their unusual friend which would help explain him to them.
Dr. Yoeder, standing in front of the classroom, proclaimed "He's something new!" while thrusting his index finger into the air. "His condition makes him a conundrum, a paradox wrapped in a mystery."
"What do you think Monte will do with his life?" she continued.
"It's not so much what he does," the doctor replied, "but what he is that counts".
"Today I'll tell you about the only true genius I have ever met," the professor told his advanced students at the beginning of fall in Monte's senior year. He proceeded to tell them about David Marr, a brilliant young neuroscientist from Britain. After amazing the class with the theory on brain function created by such a uniquely gifted mind, the doctor then posed a question to them while looking over their heads.
"Now, is there anyone in this room who thinks that they are a true genius?" The classmates, including Monte, all looked around at each other, as if to say "Nope! No geniuses here!" The doctor seemed satisfied by the lack of response. He had heard that some of Monte's classmates were spreading a rumor that Monte was a genius, and had decided to nip that misinterpretation of their quirky classmate's behavior in the bud.
Later Dr. Yoeder began his talk with Monte by saying "Since you're not a genius, let's continue to try to find out what you really are."
Monte agreed, and then the doctor asked "Do you have a soft spot on the top of your head?"
Taken aback, Monte replied that he did not. The doctor explained that the cartilage in a baby's skull gets replaced by bone, but for some people a soft area continues into adulthood. Dr. Yoeder also explained that he had noticed a slightly raised portion on the top front of Monte's head, and speculated that it might have been a small version of a birth defect called an encephalocele which had healed over.
"Let's do some further tests," the doctor suggested, and he motioned Monte to the front of the room. Without hesitating, Dr. Yoeder took a book from a pile he had place there earlier and quickly fanned it in front of Monte. He then handed the book to the boy, and asked him to locate a particular word or phrase that only appeared once in the book as fast as he could. As if by instinct, the young student could often find the phrase within seconds. This continued with other books, as well as a series of photos which the doctor used like flash cards. After showing them to his pupil Dr. Yoeder would then turn around and pick out a picture from the group. He would turn back to face Monte, who would usually be able to tell whether it had been one of the pictures the doctor had flashed at him.
"How do I do that?" Monte quizzed the doctor.
"Your subconscious takes in words and pictures very quickly, and stores them in your short-term memory as visual images," explained Dr. Yoeder. "You are then able to retrieve them almost instantly without conscious effort. You seem to have some minor savant abilities, which are called splinter skills." He went on to tell the boy about some true savants and their abilities. The boy understood, and commented that it was like comparing a splinter of wood to a mighty oak tree. The doctor further explained that Monte probably had more of something called the "myelin sheath" around his neurons, which carried the signals faster and allowed Monte to think faster than normal. He said that with enough practice the teenager could even become like the Gary Mitchell character on "Star Trek" who could scan information very quickly and absorb an entire library of knowledge in a short time. Monte was a little suspicious about whether he could actually accomplish that task, but he trusted the doctor's judgement.
Later that week, Dr. Yoeder began class by asking Monte a question just as the teenager took his seat. "Could you describe what's going on in the back of the classroom without turning around?" he asked. Monte proceeded to give an accurate portrayal of another student finishing an assignment along with other details from the rear of the elongated science classroom.
"How was he able to do that?" asked Ray, one of Monte's classmates.
The instructor replied "He took in the room at a glance when he walked in."
Dr. Yoeder proceeded to test Monte's peripheral vision by standing to one side of the boy while Monte looked straight ahead. The doctor would then hold up a random number of fingers and ask his student how many fingers were being held up. Dr. Yoeder discovered that Monte's field of vision was quite a bit wider than most people's. The doctor had also previously tested the teenager's visual acuity by having him stand at one end of the school hallway and look towards the far end while trying to identify another student from that distance. Dr. Yoeder was not able to make out who the student was, while Monte had no problem with it at all. The doctor explained that, while the boy's 20/20 vision was normal, his ability to fill in missing details and find patterns was better than normal.
The professor then put these results into context. He said that most people miss about 99% of what's going on around them, in terms of pure sensory experience. But, he said, people like Monte only miss about 98%.
"I feel like a sponge for information," Monte quipped.
"I suppose you are," the doctor agreed. "You can think of your condition in terms of pluses and minuses," he continued. "It confers benefits is some aspects, but limits you in other ways when compared to most people."
Dr. Yoeder continued the class by asking each student a different question as he went around the room. When he got to Monte, he asked "What are you feeling right now?"
Monte thought for a couple of seconds, and started to describe his physical sensations, when Dr. Yoeder interrupted him to explain that he was asking the boy about his emotional state. Monte realized that he did not know what his emotions were at that particular moment. The doctor told Monte that he was a little out of touch with his own feelings. He also explained that he believed Monte had trouble relating to the emotions of other people.
"You have some trouble with feelings of empathy," the doctor explained. At first, Monte confused this with sympathy, which the doctor explained had more to do with being aware of the feelings of others, while empathy was actually feeling the emotion that another person was experiencing.
"Your sensitivities are different, both emotionally and physically," the doctor had explained to the boy. To demonstrate this he had another student grasp Monte's forearm by both hands and twist slightly in opposite directions.
"Doesn't that hurt?" asked Scott, the other boy.
"I guess it stings a little," replied Monte.
Then the doctor had a third student try it on Scott, who yanked his arm away quickly and shouted "That hurts!"
"Monte's nerves are resistant to certain types of pain, while sensitive to other kinds of input," the doctor explained to the class. He went on to demonstrate this with light and sound, which would make Monte flinch at intensities or pitches that did not bother the other students.
The teenager was also sensitive to light touches, but relaxed when his whole body was under light pressure. Each summer at the county fair there was a ride shaped like half of a vertical clam shell. The shell was made of thick metal painted deep maroon on the outside. He would sit on the bench inside the shell and turn a wheel in front of him to make the ride spin around faster and faster. Monte enjoyed the feeling of having his body pressed back against the padded inside of the clam shell. He also found it relaxing to stand on the curb close to the street during a parade whenever the marching band passed by and the percussion section reverberated through his chest. Even walking against a strong wind could feel relaxing to him.
Monte was also not comfortable with close physical proximity to others, and Dr. Yoeder sat down in a chair close to Monte's.
"I want you to tell me how far I need to move my chair away from you before you feel comfortable," he told Monte. The distance turned out to be around 3 feet away.
Scott spoke up saying "Dr. Yoeder, did you know that Monte can make his whole body go rigid, and you can't push him over?" They attempted that in class, and no other boy could push Monte over.
"He becomes an immovable object!" declared the instructor, who was not surprised by this.
Chapter Three - One Last Time
The advanced classes continued to proceed as winter approached, with Dr. Yoeder gearing them towards the common interests among Monte and his mostly male peers.
One topic of interest, at least to Monte, was the life of Nikola Tesla, which came up after Monte described Thomas Edison as "boring". Dr. Yoeder made a mystery out of the purpose for Tesla's Wardenclyffe tower, and had the class make guesses about what it was intended to be used for. Eventually they gave up and the professor explained it was for wireless transmittal, which did not impress the class too much. Monte piped up that if it could send pictures and sound, it would have been pretty cool since it was built well before the advent of television. In later years he would find out how really impressive Tesla's tower would have been if it had been completed.
At one point towards the end of class the doctor had Monte and 3 or 4 other boys sit around him in a semicircle. He seemed to be in an agitated mood. He jabbed his finger at Monte and proclaimed "You're an alien!" He paused, and when there was no reply he waggled his finger around at the rest of them and said "You're all aliens!" The students were a little shocked at this, and Monte felt that he needed to think fast in order to break the tension.
After a couple of seconds the boy retorted "Live long and prosper, Dr. Yoeder," while at the same time flashing the Vulcan salute at him. Monte's classmates started laughing, and had to quickly explain this hand sign to the doctor, who at first thought it might be a profane gesture.
The next day Monte declared that he was not an alien, but an android. "I'm like Questor, from Gene Roddenberry's television movie 'The Questor Tapes'. He's an android trying to find out what he is, and what his purpose is." The doctor nodded in understanding.
Early in his final semester as a senior Monte waited alone in the science room for one of their talks. Dr. Yoeder remained outside a long time, occasionally peeking in the little window in the door. Finally, the instructor entered the room.
"When I came in, you were sitting in a rather odd position," he told the young man.
Occasionally his classmates had found Monte standing frozen in the school hallway, staring straight ahead. They called him a space cadet. This time Monte had been sitting in his chair a little scooted down and slightly hunched forward, with his head tilted to the left side, his left foot turned in, and his arms placed on the desk-top with his hands cupped inward.
"I was in thinking mode," the boy explained to the doctor. They had previously discussed how Monte seemed to quickly change in and out of various modes of thought and behavior, like switching a television channel.
The doctor did not reply, but began slowly pacing back and forth in front of the seated boy. "You know, that's the way some autistics are," he finally said without looking at Monte.
"It's relatively mild, isn't it?" asked Monte, looking for reassurance.
"Your condition affects everything you think, do, and feel," the doctor explained. He ended the session by telling his pupil that he would see him the next day.
The following day they were discussing evolution, and the professor described how some researchers felt that autism comprised an evolutionary throwback of sorts. He jokingly pointed at Monte's forehead in class, and instructed his classmates to look at Monte's brow ridges. During a later discussion Monte decided to turn the tables on those critics and declared that his condition was actually an evolutionary step forward for humanity. For instance, he claimed, people like him were better suited to survive in trips to outer space due to his ability to cope with isolation and routine, skill with computers, and a desire to live in zero gravity environments due to a lack of coordination on the ground. As the doctor had said, "Gravity is his enemy." Monte went so far as to define his kind as a subspecies which he dubbed "homo sapiens autisticus".
In the middle of the Spring semester of Monte's senior year the student and teacher were beginning to wrap up their face to face sessions.
"Monte, there is no name for your condition. Not yet, anyway. But there are other people in the world like you," Dr. Yoeder explained.
The scientist and teacher had guided Monte through many of the important ramifications of this condition, and armed him with some of the behaviors he would need to get along in the "normal" world.
"Your problems are mostly with empathy and egocentrism," the doctor continued.
Monte didn't react.
"Would you like a diagnosis?" the doctor asked the boy.
"Is autism considered a mental illness?" Monte asked his instructor.
"I'm afraid that right now it is," the teacher answered.
The young student replied that, in that case, he would decline the diagnosis.
"The brain sciences are going through a paradigm shift," Dr. Yoeder went on, using the phrase long before it became popularized, "which is a state of crisis during which anomalies in current theories must be explained by new ideas, backed up by evidence gleaned from observation. There has been a turning away from purely behavioral explanations of the workings of the mind, towards the acceptance of inner experiences as evidence of those workings. People like you are helping us by showing us how an anomalous mind works."
Before Monte had time to think of a response the instructor suddenly stated "History sometimes treats people harshly."
Monte's brow furrowed, and he said "Are you talking about yourself?" He was a little nervous about the answer.
The doctor did not look at Monte, but replied "It's you that I'm worried about."
Then Dr. Yoeder paused.
"What do you think about that?" he continued.
"I think I'm going to forget about it as quickly as possible," the boy replied, his anxieties climbing. The doctor seemed to understand, and the session ended. Within a matter of days, Monte felt that he had pushed the matter from his mind.
Dr. Yoeder had begun to realize that Monte's fantasy world was taking over, and that Monte's egocentricity was making him believe he was at the center of an important change in world history. Time with the student was running out as graduation approached, and in a desperate attempt to break him out of his growing delusions the doctor one day revealed Monte's fantasy to the class. This embarrassed Monte quite a bit, and of course some members of his graduating class teased him about it, but it did wake him up from his dream enough to keep him from slipping into a world of his own that was completely detached from the real one.
As the school year hurried to a close the young student's apprehensions worsened as he contemplated graduation and the inevitable separation from his classmates and his home town.
Monte had begun to grow distressed at the seemingly endless series of tests by Dr. Yoeder. One evening at home he paced back and forth in his room at home, trying to think of a way to express his discomfort to his teacher in as reasonable a way as possible. Retreating to his room, where he could play music and draw in his sketchpads, was the only way he had to really get away from the strains of the social world. The next day he approached Dr. Yoeder after class and nervously explained the situation to him. The doctor seemed to understand, and the boy left for the day.
"He's overloading me," complained Monte the next morning when another of his fellow students asked about his apparent distress. More and more, the doctor had used class time to point out Monte's differences from the rest of his peers, and had organized sessions to test Monte's peculiarities. Monte had begun to withdraw from this focus, and his stress grew to the point where he would often avoid Dr. Yoeder between classes. The doctor was aware of Monte's moodiness, but he was pushing a little harder on the teenager lately.
"Your father's a child!" the doctor declared dramatically as he strode past the seated boy in class one day. Startled, Monte nearly jumped from his chair in shock, tired of the persistent nature of this relationship. The doctor turned and headed back. "And your mother is like a 3 year old," he stated. Monte barked out a slightly disgusted laugh, wondering if his mother had just been insulted. Hadn't he clearly communicated his desire to be treated like the others, and not some freakish center of attention? He had often been considered a teacher's pet, and learned quickly that not everyone loved you for this. He had developed an anxiety about being in the limelight.
Towards the end of Monte's senior year the situation with his instructor had become intolerable.
"I'm done. I can't stand it anymore," Monte said to a classmate.
During class the troubled young man refused to answer any of the doctor's questions when they strayed from that period's subject matter. "I only have to talk about things that are pertinent to this class," he stated without looking at anyone.
"You're depressed," the doctor told Monte, who insisted that he wasn't. The doctor was right, but he was also wise enough to abandon this approach from that time on.
Dr. Yoeder was not going to give up so easily, and between classes would speak to Monte in a quiet voice without looking at the boy while walking past him in the hallway. This was to avoid directly approaching his student which tended to cause the young man to flinch. The doctor knew that Monte's sensitive sense of hearing couldn't help but pick up on his words.
On the final day of class in the spring of 1980 Trista insisted that everyone say good-bye to Dr. Yoeder. She pulled Monte over, who agreed to at least say farewell. Monte stood briefly in front of the doctor, and tried to shake his hand. Dr. Yoeder refused and looked away with a sullen expression on his face, and Monte abruptly turned and said "Thanks" in a low voice and left the auditorium.
In the hallway Monte's class began saying their farewells. Trista came up to him and asked him if she could give him a hug. Monte only reluctantly said yes, since he didn't like to touch others. "Monte, what field of study will you go into?" she asked.
Monte replied "I'm not sure. I just want my little corner of the world." Trying to think of something appropriate to say as they parted, he finally decided on "We'll see each other again." It was a phrase he had heard other students say to one another.
Feeling out of place in the crowd, and uncomfortable while everyone else was occupied in emotion filled conversations, Monte walked towards the exit of his home town high school for the last time. As he approached the doorway he once again felt the presence of a unique instructor. When Dr. Yoeder brushed by him Monte heard him say "Your family needs you" in a clear, deep voice. Monte nodded to himself, and would find the wisdom of this advice ring more truthfully as the years passed by.
The doctor then turned abruptly, and headed back in Monte's direction. "But you don't need them!" the doctor said while thrusting his finger into the air as he strode past Monte. The young man grinned slightly to himself as he watched the great man fade down the hall.
Monte walked out the school doors and into the parking lot towards his car. Melanie, another classmate, ran to catch up to him and asked "When are you coming back?"
Monte paused, and before getting into his vehicle replied "It's going to be a long time."
Over time, Monte forgot many of the events from high school. When he went away to college his separation anxieties were so great that he had to force many of the more tension filled memories to the back of his mind, or else he felt he would not be able to function. During the years and decades to follow scraps from the past would sometimes float back to his waking mind, but they were haphazard and unconnected to each other, like confetti in the wind. He didn't have a structure he could use to connect his memories together. Nearly 25 years passed, and then as he began reading more and more on the internet about a condition called Asperger Syndrome his memories began to reassemble. He felt a gradual and growing relief from years of searching within himself and wondering what was wrong with him, and became especially moved by the words and experiences from those who were on the autism spectrum. He had finally found that there really were other people like him in the world, just as Dr. Yoeder had told him so long ago.