The Tyranny of Conformity

If I were to author a film about the following real-life story, the opening scene would depict the experience I had about two years ago. I came home from a grocery store and saw a small package at the foot of my front door. Laden with grocery bags, I elbowed my way into the house to free my arms of groceries before returning to the unmarked package. As I picked it up, a familiar young man appeared and told me that the package contained a pair of his shoes. I then asked him, “What are they doing here?” In a quiet, unemotional, and as-a-matter-of-fact tone, he responded, “I don’t like my house.” My imagined film then cuts to a flashback that begins two years ago and continues to this day. Of course the names of real people and most locations are fictitious.

‘John’ is severely autistic. I didn’t know that until I first saw him at the narrow exit of a store. He was hugging each lady in a group of four as they passed single-file through the exit. Each of them disdainfully pushed him away. Sadly, he was baffled by their rejection. It was also evident to me that this was a recurring event. A few days later I noticed that John hugged passersby, many of whom knew him and some who did not. Gender was not a factor: his hugs are sheer affection, not at all sexual. Some males who know him briefly return his affection, others do not. The same is true of females. A few gently welcome his affection and will even genuinely smile and say a word or two to him before they move on or, more likely, pleasantly greet him without stopping at all, just as many ordinary people do during their hurried daily rounds. In a roundabout way John is a sort of celebrity in the neighborhood!

But no one ever stops to talk to him except neighbors who have known him since he was born. I’m told that his mother abandoned him when he was an infant and that his father is in jail. And with no presumption about John’s psychological state of mind or any medical assumptions at all on my part, I think that the reason for his proclivity to hug strangers is at least in part a function of his early childhood abandonment (although I believe that autism is primarily genetic).  In any case, what I can posit because of my overall view of life is that individuality is capable of trumping  heredity and environment at the core of one’s being. For example, medical science and ‘studies’ assume that John is indifferent to the suffering of others, and that he cannot relate to other human beings. I know otherwise. John belies many of the characteristics that are generally associated with if not central to the “autistic spectrum.”

One warm summer day, I sat on a ledge just outside my front door and saw John and two other men working directly across my street. The three men had no facilities to eat lunch during their break and asked me if it would be okay to use my home’s masonry as tables and chairs. Of course I consented and offered them paper cups, napkins, and a box of cookies as dessert. The cups and napkins were appreciated but ignored, but the men devoured the cookies. That brief association with them was reassuring: it countered the sting I had felt when John had been summarily rejected by the ladies at the grocery store. I was pleased when one of the men warmly offered John additional French fries.

I continued my role as host until their job was finished. But John came back for more. He’d come at about the same time in the afternoon and we’d chat. When the fall weather made it too cold to continue our Tea and Sympathy ritual outdoors, I took it into my home. Then, at a one-on-one basis it became possible for me to teach John elementary facts, e.g., the days of the week in order.

I live in one room at ground level. The room is large and haply is surrounded by three large windows and two huge bay windows. I have no window shades because I can pull curtains open and see the sky all day, quite a feat in Brooklyn.  Having no doorbell, I answer visitors when they tap on the nearest window to my door.

One evening, long after our break, John tapped on that window. I reminded him that I work on my computer in the evening and that I would be glad to see him the following day. He left. But about a half hour later tapped on the window again. Firmly but gently I told him that I would be glad to see him the next day at the usual hour. He left again. But shortly after, he began tapping the window again. In order to avoid a precedent, I did not go to the window. The tapping continued intermittently for about fifteen minutes. It was difficult to keep myself from responding but when the taps finally stopped, I was relieved.

About three hours later I was jolted by a devastating experience. One of my windows had an old air conditioner that had a mobile accordion-like accessory attached to it so that the AC could fit snugly within the larger window frame.  Just before putting my lights out, I saw John’s limp arm hanging out of the fully opened aperture of the AC accessory. That uncanny image was compounded by the sight of John drenched by pouring rain. Autism has a way of throwing a piercing light on its brand of human tragedy.

Always striving to live life as it should be rather than as it is, I always consider the other’s state of being. In part, that means that within my moral parameters and his, I enter John’s world. The depth to which one is able/willing to enter another’s inner world is the fundamental factor that defines the level of any relationship. On the other hand, the ‘herd instinct’ (nature’s design for group survival in animals) is counter to the individuation of humans. That conflict is at the root of prejudices ─ racial, political, religious, or social.

Autism ─ a severe communications handicap ─ is very low on the Handicap Tolerance Scale (as I call it). The HTS registers even greater intolerance for autism than the intolerance that is aroused by the hearing impaired. For just about everyone, it’s one thing to have to repeat a word or (God forbid) a whole sentence to someone who has difficulty hearing, but it’s another to hear pathologically repeated words, the hallmark symptom of autism.

Prejudices, including racism, are spawned and fed by mindless intolerance combined with ignorance. Autism is no exception. John is confronted daily by prejudice. Although baffled by marginalization and raw rejection, he continues to pleasantly greet people on the street. That attitude combined with street smarts assures me that in the long run he’ll be okay. But it’s a serious matter when prejudice hinders someone from social equality, as John has been.

About six months ago, John came to me with a Driver’s Manual issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. He was ─ and still is ─ seeking a Driver’s Permit, the first step required to be admitted to a driving school. Without hesitation, I thought, “Why not?” So we began.


John can’t read. On the back cover of the driving manual are printed 16 road signs. The road signs have words and pictures. For example, the words “slippery when wet” are written beneath the picture of a car with skid marks in the wake of its back tires.

On white cardboard, I cut out the shapes of each sign (and a few others not on that cover, e.g., “one way street”) and applied the colors assigned for each of those signs as they appear on the road. But I omitted all words. Then, I provided John with spoken words beneath the signs and a pantomimic gesture for each of the signs. For example, on sight John would say, “Slippery when wet” while he pantomimed falling snow followed by rain and then ice; then he grabbed an imaginary steering wheel and swayed from side to side as though he were a driver struggling to control a skid.

I repeatedly tested him by randomly placing all the cardboard pieces face-down, then choosing one piece at a time and asking him to name and describe the meaning of each sign. He now does that without hesitation and to perfection.

I also taught and drilled him about dozens of rules of the road, some of which even seasoned experienced drivers don’t know, e.g., “In what position should your car’s front wheels be while you are waiting to complete a left turn at an intersection of a two way highway?”

In addition to knowing the manual’s content thoroughly, I’ve drawn on my experience as a driving instructor at a school where I was also chosen as the instructor for the school classes.

The Test

When I thought John was ready to be tested for a driving permit, we went to the DMV. It was then that I learned that the test is given on a computer. Although there is a version of the test for illiterate candidates, John has virtually no idea how to work a computer. To exacerbate matters he had never known the concept of multiple choice questions. The very concept of multiple choice is antithetical to the structure of John’s mind which is dedicated to sameness. Yet, John can correctly and easily answer direct questions, e.g., “When is the only time that you are legally allowed to pass a car on its RIGHT?” Using a diagram of two intersecting roads and a group of pennies to represent cars, John can demonstrate the safe and legal manner to pass on the right. He can do the same in answer to many other questions about the rules of the road.

In addition to that, I’ve observed John’s head movements: instinctively they respond to traffic and pedestrian movement all about us (a combination of “safety first” and “defensive driving”).

Catch 22

But there is a problem.

Despite being highly informed about driving, John is prohibited from earning a driving permit only because he does not know how to handle a computer. The DMV is a governmental institution. Therefore, its workers are forced to be robotic. As a result: No computer skill, no permit possible.

Various devices have been designed to make it possible for physically handicapped people to drive. Why must John be deprived of an opportunity for independence just because he must prove he  can learn to drive only through a computer?

If he were granted the opportunity to have a one-on-one test with a human being, he would have a shot at acquiring a driver’s permit making him eligible as a student in a driving school. At the school he would ‘learn’ most of what he already knows, plus how to park a car, a skill that requires him to be at the wheel. Why not afford him the same opportunity that millions of others are granted?

So far, representatives at the DMV have not favorably responded to my request that John is granted a one-on-one interview to demonstrate his knowledge about driving. After all, the test’s only function is presumed to ascertain the extent of John’s (theoretical) knowledge about driving, not his computer skills.

Ironically, many people who easily pass the computer test will be the cause of fatal accidents because they are drinkers. On the other hand, John, who does not drink, will almost certainly be denied a driver permit because of a subliminal prejudice against individuals who are autistic.

But, like Don Quixote, I will continue to struggle for his impossible dream.

Stay tuned.

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