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?


  1. Mary, I enjoyed this thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Having met David and enjoyed his company on several occasions, I wholeheartedly believe that he should have pursued the dream of getting a doctorate in physics. You displayed amazing courage and dedication (and faith!) throughout the many years that you devoted yourself to assisting David to achieve each milestone in his educational journey. David has much to contribute in this domain. I hope he will find employers willing to work with the reality of his constraints to take advantage of his brilliant scientific mind and genial personality. I greatly admire how you tailored many situations in order to prepare David to be successful, such as when you helped desensitize his reactions to flying in a plane so that he could attend conferences and present papers. I wish for an opportunity to present itself that is a good match with David's needs and temperament. Keep on posting! --Karen

  2. The odds are long for anybody's success in certain fields, but kids with a passion for something should always be encouraged to pursue their dreams.