The Wild Boy

How can it be that we left our house an hour ago
with a healthy toddler, and returned
with a disabled one?

by Paul Collins

[Editor's Note: In his book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, author Paul Collins captures that turning point in the lives of parents of children with special needs when they realize that the child they think of as brilliant and unique and different in a fascinating way is, to professionals with clipboards and developmental charts, different in a way that's not good at all. The story of Paul; his wife, Jennifer; and their son, Morgan, is interspersed with Paul's research on autism, including the story of an 18th-century "wild boy" believed to be an early case of autism. In the scene excerpted below, Paul and Jennifer endure their son's first early intervention evaluation. Sound familiar to anyone?]

The following is an excerpt from the book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism by Paul Collins; published by Bloomsbury, 2004; $24.95US; 1-58234-367-5. Copyright © 2004 Paul Collins.

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"So," Autumn tells us, "we're going to do this evaluation by setting up some activities for him to do, and it's sort of timed."

Morgan is sitting on a carpet at the child development center, running a toy pickup truck back and forth in an arc across the floor. The room is full of grown-ups -- me, Jennifer, and a clutch of women bearing business cards that all read PORTLAND EARLY INTERVENTION PROGRAM -- and our son could not care less. He is holding up the pickup truck and spinning its wheels one by one, then in pairs, then all at once, carefully observing how they slow themselves to a halt by friction or by his slapping a hand against their treads.

Autumn, the newly minted college grad of the group, goes over to a video camera at the corner of the room, adjusts its tripod angle downward, and then slips a tape into a boom box. The specialists sit at a table in one corner, observing our son. Autumn turns on the tape and then drops down on her haunches to Morgan's height.

"Okay! Morgan, we're going to have fun."

He looks up momentarily from his truck and then goes back to spinning the wheels.

"Ready," the disembodied voice warbles from the boom box. Beep.

"Okay!" Autumn says. "Morgan, let's play with blocks."

She pulls out a set of wooden blocks and takes one out.

"Can you take out a wooden block?"

He looks at the bag in a desultory way.

"I take a block out," she says. "Can you take one out?"

Morgan turns around to look at the video camera and boom box instead.

"Ready," it says again. Beep.

Jennifer and I look at each other. What are they getting at here?

"Morgan ... Morgan," Autumn repeats. "Where is the red block? Where is the red -- "

He mashes his finger down on the red block.

"Good! Where is the yellow block?"

He gets that one, too. He keeps wanting to look back at the camera instead, but at least he's getting the questions right now. Jennifer reaches over and squeezes my hand, and I feel a burden lifting off me. We desperately want to intervene and cheer him on, but we both have to keep quiet.

"Where is the bl -- "

"Ready," it says.

Morgan spins around to face the boom box.

"Set!" he yells back delightedly. "Go!"

Laughter ripples through the room.


"Morgan ... " Autum smiles. "Can you look at the doggie here? The doggie? ... Morgan?"

The "Ready" keeps coming, and each time, Morgan turns around to yell, "Set! Go!" back at the boom box. This, he has decided, is the point of the game. He is barely paying attention to Autumn and her bag of toys.

"Morgan, can you clap your hands? Like this? ... Morgan? ... Morgan, look at me. Clap. Clap your -- "


"Set!" he yells. "Go!"


He turns to Autumn but notices her case file folder and reaches into it.

"No, Morgan," she says cheerily as he rearranges paperwork. "Over here ... Morgan?"

Autumn waits until he is looking back at her, and then she deliberately pulls her lips into a sad-face frown.

"Ohhh," she sobs woefully, waiting for his sympathy. "Ohhh! Boo-hoo!"

He watches her a moment but doesn't react. Then he gets up and walks away.


"Set! Go!"

He charges at the big expensive video camera and grabs the tripod, and all of us -- a roomful of half a dozen adults -- are frozen for a moment.


"Whoa!" I swoop in. "Morgan, no no no. Leave the camera alone."


"That's right, honey. Let's go back and see Autumn."

But he pulls against me. He doesn't want Autumn or her toys or her funny faces. He wants to inspect the tripod.

"Morgan -- "


"Set! Go!"

I keep waiting for them to end the test, because it's all falling apart now, but they don't. It just keeps going, and the timed beeps won't stop, and the camera doesn't stop rolling, and he misses out on more and more of the evaluation prompts. And the specialists take more and more notes.

[Paul Collins is the author of Sixpence House, which records earlier adventures of the Collins family, and Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World. He edits the Collins Library for McSweeney's Books, and his work has appeared in New Scientist, the Village Voice, and Business 2.0.]

Reprinted from Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism by Paul Collins © 2004 by Paul Collins. Permission granted by Bloomsbury USA., New York, NY 10010.

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