I just finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book looks at how individuals or people from certain cultures become successful. He rightly attributes success to community – but I have a really hard time getting a fix on just what his community lens is.
For example, there is a section about geniouses. Gladwell talks (almost disparagingly) of Chris Langen’s speech patterns and communication style. Langen has been called the world’s smartest man – he certainly exhibits trademark characteristics of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome…including the way he speaks. Langen’s life story is horrible: he grew up poor, and every opportunity he tried to pursue seemed to have extra locks and tricks he was forced to figure out that kept him from succeeding. So Langen remains a true outlier unlike someone like Bill Gates. Gates also displays aspie traits, but because of his station in life was given access to opportunities that enabled him to thrive on one of his teenage fixations: computer programming.
My argument with Outliers in general is that Gladwell almost gets it – but doesn’t go far enough. Which is weird to me since he is of native descent. Native folk in most cases always want to know who you are, and how you are situated in your community. You have to tell them where you are from, who your parents and grandparents are, who you know, etc etc. Then they can listen to you (really hear what you are saying) once they have decided where you are from, since that makes you who you are.
There are several chapters that focus on geniuses, but nothing is ever said about Asperger’s Syndrome. Instead the reader is left with the impression that as long as you are given the opportunity to practice something for 10,000 hours, or if you grow up at the right time or in the right neighborhood, you’ll be able to become an expert. To which I say: hogwash. You have to have a talent for that thing, a desire to put in the time to become truly expert at that thing. So to say that Bill Gates or Bill Joy are where they are now from luck and practice is just ridiculous. They also have talent, and possibly an autistic view that enables them to become so completely absorbed in something that they can get started on that magic 10K number early in life.
In fact, this is what is so painful about the story of Chris Langan. The book tells about his life of poverty, but nothing is said about his mother, who was disowned from her wealthy shipping executive family. Why was she cut off? Did she have issues as well? Did this feed into what made Langan who he is? And is this why she couldn’t stick up for him at school, or figure out how to salvage his scholarship?
People with Asperger’s have a hard time advocating for themselves because they don’t understand social cues. But if you throw in social rules they would never have had exposure to at all due to class, you put them at an additional disadvantage.
This happened to my daughter. She has Asperger’s Syndrome, but was not diagnosed until the summer between high school and college. When she was in the eighth grade at RAA Middle School in Tallahassee, Fl I requested that she be tested. She has always been very very smart, like Langan she started talking at 5 or 6 months, but she was becoming overwhelmed at school.
When all this happened, I had just moved to Tallahassee from Fort Walton Beach, FL as a transfer student to Florida State University. I was poor – making less than 12K a year (with 2 kids). I was young, and looked even younger than I was. RAA was in a transition mode. The principal, Donna G. Callaway, was in the process of rebranding that school as a magnet school for the academic “best and brightest”. She imposed a uniform policy, and strict attendance policies.
I may have been young and poor, but I was learning how to navigate the internet to find information in my studies at school. I also had a powerful network of strong women who did not buy into the idea that there is only one way to demonstrate intelligence, and who did not want to hear any excuses for me not ensuring the success of my children.
I knew to get my daughter tested because people on the LD Onlne message boards explained how to request this testing. Her WISC scores indicated that she had a 25 point split between her verbal and non-verbal IQ scores. This clearly indicated possible neurological issues, in fact reading through her test results clearly points to autism as a possible diagnosis.
Not only was my daughter denied the accommodations that would have relieved some of the stress she had at school so that she could learn as well as the rest of the kids, I was told that if she did not pass her classes she would be held back so that she would learn to be compliant and obedient.
Of course, everything turned out ok for my daughter. That evil principal is who kicked my search for answers about what needed to be done to ensure my daughter’s success into high gear. She went to high school and was free from such a closed-minded administrator. Her brother went to middle school the next year, but I made sure he went to a different choice school. I was recruited by EMC and moved to Massachusetts, which is one of the best places to be if you have a child on the autism spectrum. She got into every college to which she applied, and graduated with honors from SUNY Albany in the spring. (Take that Mrs Callaway!)
But what would have happened if I hadn’t been so stubborn about her diagnosis of my daughter? What would have happened if I hadn’t been in a degree that was teaching me how to search for information? What if I hadn’t been so good at finding information on the Internet? What if my network had not insisted that I advocate for her, and given me the words and the support to stand up to such opposition? What would have become of my daughter?
She was just as smart and capable (if not more so) as every kid in that school. She was at a disadvantage from her undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome and Sensory Integration disorder. She was on outlier, even when by law the school should have given her accommodations that would have leveled the playing field and given her the chance to shed that outlier status.
What has happened to kids all over Florida just like my daughter, who didn’t have someone that had the community and support that I had?
And what do we lose as a society, and as professionals, if people like my daughter or Chris Langan aren’t provided with pathways to use their proclivity for their special interests as a profession? How many Bill Gates and Bill Joys have been shunted into lives of menial labor because of paperwork, or horrible college or K-12 administrators? How many are still Outliers?
I still almost shake with anger when I think of what we went through. I cleaned my office today, and read through some of the documentation I have kept from that time period. Brian asked me why I am so angry, it’s been over eight years since this happened and everything turned out fine. I think because I know how lucky we are. I know we were being discriminated against, and I realize how close my baby came to being locked in that Outlier status.