Here’s a not-particularly-well-guarded secret from academia: all of us professors hope to have at least one active, engaged student who answers our rhetorical questions, pulls the other students into Socratic dialogue, and demonstrates reflection on the required reading. If you told me in advance that a particular semester’s assemblage of students just wouldn’t have such a student, I’d seriously reconsider the value in my making any kind of effort with the class.
Now that the grades are all submitted for this latest semester, I’d like to tell you a little about such a student in my “American Cultures in Film” class, a course that I sometimes offhandedly refer to as “the diversity class.” At semester’s outset I tell the students that the class is about three things: conversations, connotations, and contributions – of Hollywood’s historically marginalized groups, which basically means everyone except straight male WASPs. (More and more across academia, such classes are changing from electives to requirements, a welcome development.) This semester, the professor who had the room before me (teaching a different class) was a black woman, and it seemed slightly incongruous that me, a white man, was taking her chair to teach a class that’s often about blacks and women.
Perhaps that’s one reason that when this semester’s class rolled around to the one book chapter and the one week where we focused on disability, I overshared; I told them a tiny smidge about my experiences with my child who is diagnosed with autism. Nothing you haven’t already heard from this blog. It should probably go without saying that I don’t require them to read this blog, and if I did, half of them wouldn’t bother, considering that this particular class is taught at a community college. (This is no idle insult; that week, I asked them to name one of the neuro-typical actors their required reading had named as winning Oscars for playing disabled people; not a single student could name one. Then I asked the class to raise their hand if they had not seen Forrest Gump, one of the book’s examples; no hands came up, but there was a lot of awwwwwwwwwww.) But I’ve been lucky, because I always have a few terrific contributing conversationalists in each class, and this class featured such a student, who I’ll call Chris, and when the discussion steered to autism, Chris raised his hand politely, and when I called on him, Chris said “I had autism.”
Needle-scratch that trailer. This is the moment in the movie theater where you hear the gasps, the big twist in a film like The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, or Fight Club. This is the big comeuppance for audience and lead character, who suddenly must rethink everything they thought they knew. Chris…had autism? And he’s just telling the class about it this way? And on the surface, he’s absolutely indistinguishable from any of the best students I’ve ever had?
Now, look, there’s a lot of talk in the “autism community” (in other words: the few websites I have time to check) about the problems with terms like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” and if I’m honest, I’ll admit that like a lot of parents of nonverbal, autistic kids, I tend to roll my eyes at some of the complaints of those parents of “HF” kids, for example their complaint that there shouldn’t be such marks of distinguishing between kids on the spectrum. Oh, you’re against discriminatory labels on your kid, except during the times you want parents and teachers to discriminate in favor of your kid? So as you can see, I get a little prickly sometimes. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is supposed to come out with new terms in its next, sixth, edition.) The truth is that hearing phrases from our developmental pediatrician like “We know that if the child is nonverbal at five, that it’s very unlikely that words will ever become his primary mode of communication” do not exactly fill me with confidence that Dar will ever be anything like this outstanding student, Chris.
But still. In the moment, I was flabbergasted. I let Chris keep making his point, I called on a few others, and then I believe I let the class wrap up. (As in a movie, it was just about that time anyway.) Chris lingered a little longer, as he usually did, and I blurted something like “So you were diagnosed on the spectrum, eh?” He replied that he was, and he spoke a little about his childhood experiences, in a very open, candid way. I was stunned. No, Chris was not nonverbal at five, and no, I didn’t have to ask him that directly. Yes, I realize that autism isn’t really something someone grows out of, but instead finds coping strategies…I was not about to grill Chris about everything. Just to see him standing in front of me, this brilliant student I’d known, and think that Dar could even sorta maybe kinda perhaps be anything like him…like the Grinch, I think my heart grew three sizes that day.
It would have been different if Chris had told me he was autistic at the start of the semester. If I were to go to an autism conference (never have!), I would expect to see many adults and older teens like Chris. I would steel myself for those people, and they wouldn’t mean much to me – I would know that Dar can’t be one of them. The difference here is that the classroom is my little world where I think I know all the rules and all the possibilities. It’s like the difference between bracing yourself for the Castro on Halloween, and being at a family reunion where you learn, oh, the uncle that you thought was always straight has been gay forever. (This year, over a dinner, a long, longtime friend came out to me, showing me pictures with his boyfriend; what an amazing endorphin rush of a feeling that is! No, not for my friend, but for me! The trust and honor and sheer joy associated with a friend sharing his finally finding himself is an E-ticket ride for fortysomethings.)
It’s a cliché, but the best classes are where the professor learns a little something as well, and that day Chris schooled me on that course’s chief connotation: You Never Know. You never know.