Last night, I was up dealing with a crabby George for about 45 mins. After I got him settled, I had a hard time going back to sleep. As they so often do, my thoughts began to wander. Now, usually, when I can’t sleep, I’ll just lie there and dwell on whatever worry is bothering me. Money. Health. Friends and family. The horribly embarrassing thing I did or said recently. The latest stuck plot point in one of my books. You get the idea. Last night, however, I started thinking back to something I remember from when I was a kid, something I hadn’t thought about in years.
I must have been around 6 or 7, because my mom and I were still living in Lexington. (Mom, chime in here and correct me on anything I’ve gotten wrong, okay?) I remember her talking about one of her co-workers. I think his name was Ernie. Maybe. (Mom, am I right? The one who gave you that gorgeous vase that I stole to take to college and then it got broke my first day there? Ernie?) Anyway, we’ll call him Ernie. Ernie’s daughter was autistic. I remember hearing Mom talking about it and asking her what ‘autistic’ means. She said (and I’m paraphrasing): “Autistic means the person lives in their own world and can’t really talk to other people.” Again, I was 6 or 7 at the time, but that’s what I remember hearing. “Live in their own world.” I found that thought at once both intriguing and terrifying. Where they stuck in a different world? Like, really? (I tended to be very literal as a child and spent years pondering the Queen song, wondering why on earth someone would want to bite dust. Seriously.)
Now, this would have been in 1983 or ’84, probably. I am unable to find definitive statistics about how prevalent autism was back then, but the rate of 2 per 1,000 is what I keep seeing bandied about on the Interwebs. That is compared to 14.7 per 1,000 in 2010 per the CDC. Definitely a lot less common than today. And, if I may branch out into the Land of Assumption, I am guessing that since Ernie’s daughter was given that diagnosis in the early 80s and given Mom’s description of her, then she was probably fairly low functioning. Again, this is pure conjecture, and, Mom, please correct me if I’m wrong.
I was fascinated. I never met her, at least not that I recall, but I was fascinated. Around the same time, the TV show ‘St Elsewhere’ had an autistic child character. SPOILER ALERT: In final episode, which aired in 1988, Tommy, who is autistic, is shown playing a snow globe containing a miniature St Eligius. His father says to Tommy’s grandfather: “I don’t understand this autism thing, Pop. Here’s my son. I talk to him. I don’t even know if he can hear me, because he sits there, all day long, in his own world, staring at that toy. What’s he thinking about?”, leading to the theory that the entire series and storyline of St elsewhere had taken place entirely inside this little boy’s mind. I remember that scene very, very clearly (probably because I had a crush on Chad Allen. Don’t judge). I did have to look the quote up, though. I’m good, but I’m not that good.
I found the whole concept of autism….. I don’t want to use the word ‘fascinating’ again, but it’s the best I can do. I was certainly intrigued and very drawn to it. I remember declaring that when I grew up, I wanted to be a psychologist who studied autism. To help kids like Ernie’s daughter and the fictional Tommy. Kids who were trapped in their own worlds.
And now here we are.
It’s funny the things you remember late at night.