Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What was better in Mississippi in the 1950s

The October Atlantic arrived today, and the lovely Carol sat with me as we read a brilliant article about "Donald T," the first child in the United States to be diagnosed with autism. Donald's story has a happy ending; he lives independently (mostly); he drives and plays golf; he is probably the most widely traveled person in town. He is known and liked by many. A few observations, in no particular order:
  • Donald's parents were rich. People who are poor and odd are weird; if you're rich and odd, you're eccentric.
  • But it's not just that they were rich. Donald lives in the house he grew up in (he is now 77). I have the impression (not fact-checked) that a lot of people in Forest have lived there several decades.
  • Donald's parents were married for life.
  • They also took terrific care of him; he was not neglected by any standard. They took him to a Dr. Kanner at Johns Hopkins, who first used the term "autism" in the United States.
  • Since the 1990s, autism has been on a tear; half a million autistic children will enter adulthood over the next decade or so.
A key point the writers make is that we are going to have to adapt to these autistic adults. This will be easier, the authors note, if we consider "them" as being part of "us."

I resemble this remark, actually; I'm sure I had Asperger's as a child and maybe as a young adult. (Obsessed with numbers? Comfort in clothing a higher priority than its appearance? Others' points of view found mysterious?) But I digress.

As I read about Donald's life, it reminded me about something I heard at a recent seminar. Half a century ago, when America was not nearly as mobile a society as it is today, a child might go to the school his/her parents attended, maybe even be taught by the same teacher. Today, with many broken homes, we have a lot more in the way of nuclear families living where no one in their family lived before. Neighbors change more frequently (five owners of the house next door over the past 25 years for example, vs. about three over a half-century for the house next door to where I grew up).

In the 1940s, Dr. Kanner at Johns Hopkins found 11 cases of autism total. Doubtless there were more, but I believe that with stable communities and families, a lot more of them could just sort of get along -- whereas today, with families moving a lot and neighborhoods constantly changing, people need to function at a higher level to make their way in the world. In a small town, the clerk at the grocery store might know who you are and have time to give you a hand with getting your cash out (or your ATM card swiped). But the lines at supermarkets today are filled with hurried and harried people who really don't want to wait for someone to fumble through swiping their debit card through the card-reader.

In other words, it's a lot tougher world out there for people who don't function all that well. This also is something that is hitting Millennials harder than the Silents or Boomers, or even GenXers.

I'm not saying I want to live in the Mississippi of the 1950s, but I wonder if Donald, even with all his parents' money, would do as well if he'd been born in California 50 or 60 years later.

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