Dan Bergmann just earned his degree from Harvard Extension School, and was one of the speakers at this year’s commencement:
When I was twelve years old, I suddenly learned to think, all at once, on a single day. Before that day almost no one would have thought that I would ever understand the world around me. I made meaningless noises, waved my arms, and shouted “cookie” when I wanted a cookie. I did not understand the children’s books that were lovingly read to me, and had no clear sense of time or death or the other building blocks of this thing we call the human condition.
Thirteen years and a college degree later, I still make noises and wave my arms, but now I can type this commentary, with one finger, one letter at a time, into a text-to-speech computer and share my thoughts with you.
That day 13 years ago, I worked with a teacher who taught me how to answer questions. She put a pencil in my hand and showed me how to spell out the answers I had chosen by stabbing the pencil through letters cut out of a board. Suddenly, because I was making language and not just hearing it, my mind began to wake up.
At 12 years old I had a lot of learning to catch up on, but I was on my way.
I know now that a lot of my autism has to do with not being able to get my body to do what my mind wants it to do. My body was horribly disorganized, but the moment my teacher put answering questions within my physical ability, I began to learn, and I loved it. And my teachers loved teaching me, and I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.
If someone seems like they can’t or don’t want to learn, look for the physical obstacle, and remove it. This applies not just to the millions of people like me who have autism and can barely speak, but to people who are prevented from learning by distance, language, or economic pressures.
For years I was classified as intellectually disabled. I think, at least where non-speakers with autism are concerned, there’s no such thing.
Story produced by Young Kim. Editor: Chad Cardin.