I was privileged to have the parents I had. We were not wealthy, but the lessons they gave me were beyond any price.
My father, Hugh F. Rankin, was a relatively well-known historian specializing in the American Colonial period. In the 1930’s he studied engineering and worked in the construction field, building roads and bridges. During World War II, Dad served in the Army, building airfields. He injured his back so badly that he was forced to leave his original field behind. He returned to school on the G.I. Bill, and rekindled a lifelong love affair with history.
Dad was part of a group of post-war graduate students, many of them at the University of North Carolina, who became legends among southern historians. A couple of decades ago, another great historian, the late, great Dewey Grantham, interviewed many of his peers from that era for a project of the Southern History Collection at the UNC Library. My father was one of the interviewees.
Years after my father’s death, I came across a transcript of Dewey’s interview with him. They discussed everything but history: influences, the joys of teaching, family background, etc. In the middle of their conversation, Dad discussed one of the most important life lessons he ever learned.
My father was raised in a small town in North Carolina’s tobacco country. Although he was raised in a family that was relatively free of racial hatred, the culture of the time was one of class and race divisions. It was just understood. One day, Dad was supervising the construction of a road, and they encountered an unanticipated problem with the terrain. All of the engineers, designers, and supervisors were huddled, trying to determine the solution. None of the decision makers paid any attention to a middle-aged African American gentleman standing nearby. He was employed in the only position available to him: delivering water to the white workers.
As the group argued about potential solutions, Dad grew more frustrated because each suggestion he heard was impractical. After he pointed that out, the water man, who had been listening intently, decided it was time to pipe up: “It’s simple Cap. You just move that over there.” As the others rolled their eyes and went back to arguing over their elegant solutions, Dad looked to where the water man had pointed. He then looked at the water man, and then turned to the others in the group and argued for the simple and direct solution that the ignored African American suggested until the others reluctantly gave in. The solution worked. And my father vowed to himself that he would never again dismiss anyone based on their appearance or station in life.
Dad never told me that story while he was alive. He didn’t need to. Every moment I spent with him was a lesson in respect learned from observing the way he interacted with people. On family road trips -- in the pre-Interstate Highway days before self-serve gas stations -- we would pull in to rural filling stations with attached country stores. Whether the person working the pumps was an elderly African American, a 12-year old, barefoot boy, or a young adult in a starched shirt, my father’s request was always worded the same and delivered in the same respectful tone: “Fill it up with high test, please, sir.” In whatever context I witnessed Dad interacting with anyone, he always deemed every human to be worthy of respect until he or she showed otherwise. My father never had to tell me that; he just lived it and I absorbed the lesson.
About a month ago, before a hurricane rudely interrupted my life, I posted some thoughts about what is known as the neurodiversity movement. The rhetoric I saw on other sites from both the neurodiversity and biomedical communities seemed harsh and defensive. I wanted to see if we could all stop shouting long enough to listen to each other. The dialog that was started exceeded any hopes I could have had. Since those posts, I have continued to get to know some of the neurodiversity crowd through comments at blogs and through email. I may disagree with some of what is said, but I respect those people and their opinions.
When you get right down to it, we have far more in common that we have real divisions. The divisions are largely the result of semantic differences. As we continue to discuss things in a rational and respectful manner, we develop a common lexicon and we learn.
Anything worth believing in should be able to stand up to scrutiny. I firmly believe in what my wife and I are doing for my son through biomedical interventions. The respectful conversations I have had with those who think otherwise have not shaken my belief. I will continue to encourage others to consider walking the same path we are walking. But I have learned enough from my new friends that I am starting to recognize the limitations of what we are doing.
In the biomedical community, we often throw around the word “cure.” When I use that word, I know what I mean and most other people who practice biomedical know what I mean. We are seeking to alleviate the dysfunctional aspects of ASD in our children. We will never alter the genetic makeup of our children, and to the extent genes make them autistic, they will remain autistic. I can live with that. But I believe that one or more environmental insults has acted in concert with my son’s genetic makeup to create stumbling blocks that keep him from using all of this gifts. I cannot believe I am wrong in trying to reduce the effects of those environmental insults.
On the other hand, when I am confronted with the eloquence of Kathleen Seidel
or the extraordinary testimony of an adult with autism
who wants no “cure,” I have to realize that the issues surrounding ASD are not easily addressed by one-size-fits-all answers. Could the “cure” we seek help other people who reject biomedical interventions? Perhaps, but that’s not a necessary given. More importantly, that’s not my choice to make.
We have much to learn from each other, but we cannot learn if we don’t listen. It’s called respect.