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Jerry was a verbal student with autism. He had a photographic memory that he often used to memorize information about favored movie stars. Jerry was a very social kid and loved to say hello to others throughout the school. He often initiated conversations by providing rote compliments to the person he wished to interact with. When working with him to on academics, it was important to break everything down line by line, otherwise he became overwhelmed and seemingly lost in tangents relating to his personal agenda.
One day, out of the blue, Jerry said to a member of the staff: “Is your husband’s name Gregory Garner?” The staff member said, “No, but that is my father’s name.” Another time the same staffer was working with Jerry and a few other boys in a small group. One of the other students had just been released form the hospital, and they were talking about the hospital he had been in. The staffer then went on to say that there were other hospitals in Milwaukee. Gerry then said, “I know, you went to another hospital on Sunday because your father, Gregory Garner, had a heart stroke on Saturday.” She was taken aback, because it was true that her father Gregory Garner had a heart attack on Saturday and she had gone to visit him in the hospital on Sunday. Jerry provided these unsolicited remarks with others too. He would usually have the names right, but the relationship wrong; he might say brother name when he meant father and so on.
Since he demonstrated this special ability, I wanted to see if he seemed to have some of the abilities of my nonverbal kids, so I randomly put colored blocks behind his head. He could identify all of them. He was also able to send the colors to another student as I had done for him. I was in proximity so I am not sure if that variable had an effect. I then tried it through a seven-foot opaque partition and he was just as successful. Later I found he could also correctly identify colors over the phone, as could several other students in my class. I wondered if it was the intensity of our connection and lack of interfering stimuli from others that allowed for our success over a distance. We were about five miles apart and both using landlines.
Although he was successful when the category was limited; for example, requesting colors, he did not have the ability of my non-verbal students who could type any word or sentence, I deliberately sent to them. I noticed the same need for category by the other verbal students; for example, I would have to specify I was looking for a color, number, or shape.
Lessons I learned from Jerry:
• Some kids are able to give unsolicited information that was not received through ordinary channels.
• Some verbal kids are receptive to thought sending if the information is limited by category: colors, numbers, and shapes. Nonverbal kids do not seem as limited as they can type letter by letter what you send them.
• Some kids are not dependent on proximity control but can receive information through telephone lines.
Some kids can send to other kids if limited by a category.
I have served as a teacher of individuals with autism for 18 years. What they have taught me was to be sure of nothing, and open myself to the extraordinary. Please check our other anecdotes if you are interested in reading more about these remarkable individuals.
Mary Ann Harrington