Saturday, November 12, 2016

Are We Missing Out on the Potential of Science Students with Savant Autism?

Two of my most trusted longtime occasional advisors on how to help David achieve his full potential as a scientist have been Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Darold Treffert. According to these two experts on the subject, my son , Dr. David M. Nisson appears to be the first publicly recognized American with "Level 2-3", aide-dependent autism to earn a doctorate in physics from a highly-ranked university. Sure, physics and math students with high-functioning autism is a stereotype ("Big Bang Theory", right?), but none since the great Paul Erdos have been so profoundly affected that his mother was once told she may need to "consider an institution" for him- none (in America)
who required a full-time aide to be safe on campus.

Is this because David's condition of super-high scientific intelligence mixed with dangerous levels of autistic distractibility is rare?

I don't think so. I think that there are many "David Nissons" out there, mopping floors, stocking shelves, whose intelligence is wasted because our educational system is wasteful?

Here's what I mean:
Throughout David's childhood, teachers and school administrators urged me to repress his interest in math and science, and to set about preparing him for an adulthood spent in unskilled, manual labor, supplemented by SSI, with supports from IHSS. They warned me that were my service as David's aide through college to result in his earning degrees to prove successful, he would lose his government supports because he would appear on paper to be higher functioning than is possible for him. What if he didn't end up being able to survive in the workplace? They warned me that this could leave him with neither government assistance nor the capacity to earn enough to survive. In other words, the shopping cart awaited.

Well, I prayed about it, ignored their warnings, made it this far, and with God's grace, everything seems to be turning out alright for David. However, as I now deal with the issues of transition that have arisen since David concluded college, it is with heavy heart that I must now warn the parents of the next generation of autistic children with High IQ to be very, very careful as they plan their children's education. Those early advisers were right in warning that the world's best academic schooling won't guarantee survival in the socially and politically complicated workplace. (See Autism Job Club, by Bernick and Holden). In order to create a society realistically able to both educate and then employ the more-profoundly autistic students, much systemic change lies ahead.

David's story elicits the following questions for all of us to discuss as we prepare to either educate, or to abandon, the potential within the Savant Autistic scientists of our future:
  • Should I have assured David's future food, housing, and safety protection by denying him an academic education?
  • Should I have prepared him for busing tables rather than for writing algorithms? (Busing is noble- and necessary- employment, by the way).
  • Can our planet and the people dependent upon it afford to waste the scientific resources inside human brains due to racism, sexism, or in this case, lack of fiscal imagination?                                               Quoting Charlie Babbitt in the film Rain Man (1988):                                                                                                                                         "That's amazing! He is amazing! He should work for NASA or something like that".
First, we need to reform the state and federal programs that keep autistic people alive during their transitions from college to employment, so that K-12 staff can feel ethical about encouraging savant autistic students and their families to pursue an academic education.

Then, we need to fund campus personal assistants to help science and math students at the more-profound level of autism complete their college education, as I did when I put my own career on hold to help my son through college. California's Regional Center system covered my room-n-board, but that money's gone, my friends. Gone!
David and I slipped through the system while the funding was there, but the next generation of single parents won't have it available to them.

Neither my own state of California, nor our nation, has enough in the tax base to fund family members of aide-dependent autistic science students to help them attend college, thereby contributing their much-needed skills to basic science research.

Does this mean we give up on tapping the scientific resources trapped within the brains of America's Savant Autistic students?

Or, is it time to establish privately funded foundations for this essential task?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Welcome back to old reader-friends, and welcome aboard to new reader-friends!

After taking a longer break than expected, I have renamed, and re-started my blog! Wow! We did it! Since the last blog post, David went on to earn his masters and his doctorate degrees in physics from UC Davis. He traded experimentation for theoretical and computational physics, and ended up with a broader dissertation subject than his original topic of topological insulators alone.

What a successful partnership between David and me, our wonderful team at UC Davis and other agencies and friendships who helped us along the way, with God as CEO. For those of you with autistic sons and daughters aiming for college, you might want to start clicking on the previous years to the right, and read my old posts. They will give you a hint of what's on the horizon if your son or daughter has aide-dependent autism, and a Big Dream, too.

I'm also posting what we're up to now, in our new post-college life, involving transition from me functioning as David's "staff" to others taking over for me, while I decide upon my new career directions.

I'll start with this great photograph of David with his friend Zachary enjoying life at the Special Olympics bowling tournament. Special Olympics was one of the many healthy, happy activities we had no time for back in his college days, which David now has time to enjoy. Ahhh! A more balanced life!