By James Humphrey
It was a typical preschool classroom in Hendersonville, Tennessee, on a hot August day in 1997. Four-year-old kids were playing with toys and socializing with one another as they waited for someone to pick them up. There was one boy who didn’t have any toys out. He was sitting in a corner, reading a book, alone by choice. This boy didn’t play with toy cars often, but he could point out the difference between a Honda and a Toyota in a parking lot. He saw little reason to socialize with other 4-year-old, and preferred the company of adults. He read books, and scribbled in them – not drawings of far-out space aliens or cartoon characters, but coherent words like “Dual Airbags.”
The boy sitting in a corner reading a book was me, and the reason I was sitting alone, avoiding social interaction, is Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a developmental condition typically characterized by intensely focused interests, social awkwardness (especially in childhood), and intelligence that can range from average to genius level. Those with Asperger’s often fixate on one subject and learn that subject very deeply, having a “mind like a laser,” as my dad has described it. A focused interest is the reason that day stands out to me: cars. On this day, my maternal grandfather, who always picked me up from preschool, had a new car: a light blue 1990 Nissan pickup truck.
My interest in cars as well as my ability to read date back at least to my toddler years. I was born on Christmas Day 1992, and one spring day in 1994, I was 15 months old and reading a phone book, lying at my grandfather’s feet. Suddenly, I blurted out the word “Datsun,” to the amazement of my grandfather.
My first fear also had to do with cars. In August 2000, at age 7, I was sitting in the living room in my grandparents’ house with my parents and mom’s parents. A series of bumper crash tests came on the big screen TV, and one vehicle, the Volvo S80, had an airbag deployment. As soon as I saw the airbag deploy on TV, I ran upstairs and into the den, which was far away from the living room and unoccupied. My dad had to come up and reassure me.
My fear of airbags had come up around the age of 4, after news reports of early airbag designs hurting and killing children had scared me. My fear of airbags went far beyond what might have been considered “reasonable.” I feared that airbags would deploy from computer monitors and even the mention of the word “airbag” could make me scared. The fears of a child with Asperger’s can seem strange and unusual, but they can be strong.
Other unusual fears I had as a child included Zyban and the letter “L.” The Zyban fear came around 1999, age 6, when I saw a commercial where a giant Zyban pill crushed a pack of cigarettes.
The fear of “L” came about on Christmas Day 1999, which was also my 7th birthday, when I got a set of letter refrigorator magnets. Although I enjoyed the multicolored magnets, I stayed far away from the red L’s, whose sharp right angle I didn’t like. One day in 2000, I was playing with the magnets and decided to make the school grading scale that was in effect in Tennessee at the time. When I got to the F, I realized that it was “BELOW 70” in the official documents but racked my brain for a synonym for “BELOW” to avoid using an “L”. I finally called it “Under 70”.
As I got older, my interest in cars temporarily subsided, and an interest in geography took its place. One fall day in 2002, I was lying on a bean bag that my teacher had in the class, reading an atlas. I may not have been doing the same assignment the other students were doing, but I was memorizing names of countries, cities, and geographical features. I took particular interest in the Arctic regions.
I learned that there was something called a “National Geographic Bee” open to 4th through 8th graders, and it was my dream to do well in it. “What if I could beat everyone in my whole school?” I thought. The classroom Geo Bees were done first. The whole class stood up at their desks, and each student was asked a question. If you missed a question, you had to sit down. After a few questions, I was the last man standing. “Piece of cake,” I thought.
The school bee came one cold day a couple of weeks before Christmas 2002. The class bee winners were given a set of eight questions, and whoever got the most right would get to take a test to go to the state bee. Again, I won by a long shot and found the bee to be easy.
In early 2003, I was given the written test, which was used to whittle the school winners down to 100 students that would get to go to the state bee. As I sat down in the quiet, drably decorated school office, I was very nervous, knowing that there were thousands of schools in Tennessee that participated and, thus, I would have to be in the top few percent. In addition to that, I was just in 4th grade – I figured that the best students would be 7th and 8th graders. After the test, I knew I had gotten quite a few questions wrong and thought I was done.
Pretty soon after, I was notified that I was going to the State Bee, which took place on Friday, April 4 at Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville. Entering the then-brand new high school, sweating due to nervousness and the unseasonably warm temperatures, I felt awe surging through my veins. The 100 students were split into groups of 20 each and went to different rooms; my group was in the auditorium, a grand room with red carpet which I would have never expected to see in a school. Again, it was eight questions; I got six correct, if I recall correctly. After these rounds, the 10 best scorers of the 100 students were sent on to a final round. The winner of this round would get to go to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national round.
After the scores were added up, I was informed that I was going to the final round with nine other students. It was in a brightly lit studio-like room. There were two rows of five students. The top row set a few feet above the bottom. We were each given a microphone and our name on a panel on the front of our table section. Next to the nine 7th and 8th graders, I was a little 4th grade kid, and I looked like it and my voice was a much higher pitch. We were all asked the same question and wrote down our responses; if we missed two questions total, we were out.
After I was eliminated, only three students remained, meaning that I scored fourth place. My picture was in the Tennessean the following Monday, April 7. I had taken my very specialized interest and made a very real accomplishment with it.