David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

I’m not saying that I am any good at my job. I’m not saying that I do good work with spectrummy kids. But if in fact I am able to do a good job with kiddos on the spectrum, it’s because I “get it.” I connect with spectrummy kids because, to a first approximation, I am one. I have walked many a mile in those moccasins.

Remember Dustin Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in “Rainman”? The rest of the audience is identifying with the smooth talking, handsome Tom Cruise character. The Tom Cruise character has an impossibly pretty girlfriend with a French accent, no less. The Tom Cruise character drives expensive sports cars. But I’m right there with cognitively impaired Rainman doing arithmetic in my head, understanding the obsessive need to watch “Wapner” on an inflexible schedule. I saw this fine film 30 years ago, but I remember that there are 496 toothpicks–if any more proof were needed.

There is a common misperception that all kids with autism bang their heads against the wall, fuss uncontrollably, are easily overwhelmed, and aren’t social at all. Autism spectrum kids are thought to be lost in their own inner world, unable to take the perspective of another. Collective misinformation also suggests that kids with autism have no social skills or empathy whatsoever. Raymond Babbitt in the movie typifies the cliche. He is concerned only with himself. Maybe there are some kids on the autism spectrum who can’t connect emotionally with anybody else, but the kids I see are typically desperate to relate; they just don’t have the first clue about how to go about it. They want to have friends, go on dates, be popular. They certainly don’t want to be bullied and humiliated. They just don’t have the skills to do anything other than shoot themselves in the foot. Maybe that’s why “spectrum” is in “autism spectrum disorders.” No two of us are the same.

Admittedly, my spectrummy kids are missing some pieces. “Gabe” draws a perfect blueprint of the Denver Airport. Every gate is labeled accurately, every concourse, every runway. He tries to show his drawings to a girl whom he likes. He does not understand that her preferences lie elsewhere. He is hurt and confused about her lack of interest. But he comes to the wrong conclusion: “I can also draw a flawless copy of the airport in Chicago,” he says. “Maybe she would have been more interested in O’Hare.”

I can’t find my way through the airport in Denver let alone draw a picture of it from memory. Nor am I a mathematician. But I get the perseverating, the obsessive fascination with one topic. Like many kids on the spectrum, I like numbers. When I meet with a spectrummy kid, I frequently begin our conversation by asking which fraction denominators result in terminating rather than repeating fractions. (3/4 = .75, a termination fraction; 5/6, on the other hand, is a repeating decimal, equal to .83333…. Why do some fractions terminate, others repeat? How are the denominators different?) The kids, recognizing a kindred spirit, ask me if I’d like to know how many pages there are in each of the Harry Potter books. I agree that I would very much like to be informed of how many pages there are in each of the Harry Potter books and would they like to know the first 50 digits of the infinite decimal expansion of pi. The spectrummy kids frequently already know the first 50 digits of the infinite decimal expansion of pi, but they ask me if I would like to know the license numbers of the cars they passed in the parking lot on the way into my office. “Of course, I would like to hear you recite the numbers on those license plates,” I respond. “Were any of those numbers prime, by the way? And would you like to know the numbers on the uniforms of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers?” “Yes, by all means,” they respond. “Would you like to know the serial numbers of the dollar bills I used to buy a package of  ‘Magic, the Gathering’ cards at the comic book store last Saturday afternoon at 2:31?” “Yes, please. What were the serial numbers of those dollar bills?”

Subsequent to our conversation about twin primes, we feel pretty well connected. If not well connected to one another, at least well connected to the prime numbers about which we both feel so strongly. And therein lies the lesson for how to relate to our kids: you gotta find common ground. Even if the ground is shaky for you. Maybe your kids take to languages like a panda bear loves bamboo. But perhaps your relationship with languages is more like that of a cat and bathwater. Fair enough. So you disagree about that which you find invigorating–numbers, languages, anything at all. “That’s why they make 28 flavors,” as my grandmother used to say when we differed on some issue. Affecting an interest, taking the perspective of another person, relating to a different viewpoint is what strong relationships are all about.

Rather than focusing on changing your kids, “Stop drawing pictures of airports for goodness gracious sakes and get back to learning Mandarin,” try to take a longer view. For neuro-typical kids, insisting that they attend to language or chemistry or music or lacrosse for that matter, is possibly a reasonable request. For spectrummy kids, a little understanding goes a long way. Bang your head against a wall if you must; the wall seldom complains.

I would write more on the topic of how to connect with kids on the spectrum and kids in general, but I want to get back to memorizing the squares of all the two-digit numbers. “Quantas.” See you next week.

Picture of David


10 thoughts on “Rainman

  1. Gianni

    I have a son on the spectrum. He is the sweetest, kindest and most loving little boy. He thinks babies are so cute and hates it when they cry. His sense of empathy for others is incredible. He struggles to make friends even though he desperately wants to. But once he opens up and considers you a friend? Oh you’ve got one for life. A lifetime of hugs when you’re sad, a lifetime of giggles and silly jokes. A lifetime friend.

  2. Marty Matheson

    Great article David and great reminders – the importance of finding common ground when making effort to connect with others. Thank you. -Marty Matheson, ScenicView Academy

  3. Lloyd Paradiso

    Mon très grand ami,
    Keep this up–PLEASE. It’s what we miss all too often, even those of us who know better. We allow ourselves to forget or to slip back to our own lens, our perspective when working with kids in general but especially with these guys. Get into them, get in their heads, see it their way. Not saying you need to stay there or advise from there but you better damn well have a sense of what “there” is like or you’ll never do right by these guys.

  4. Martin

    Re your memorizing the squares of two-digit numbers, I am reminded of the lyrics to the song “If you don’t know by now” (you probably do know the lyrics; that’s all I remember).

    Good piece. Dustin Hoffman’s acting in Rainman, is one of my all time favorite performances. And speaking as someone who shares enough with the character… my wife is often enough severely annoyed (and less often amazed) by my recollection of stuff.

    I think the “spectrum” is about as wide as the electromagnetic spectrum. It’s not a binary world. More of us could recognize that we’re “on it” and can connect. Trick (and maybe the difference) is being able to flip out of that world and notice what else might be going on. But most of us don’t know what we don’t know. For example, how to know whether someone likes us (or not). That’s a good skill to learn.

    1. David Post author

      Truer than true. Whether someone likes us or not is among the most difficult skills to learn. When a 17-year-old girl says, “I have someone on the other line, I’ll call you right back,” to a 17-year-old boy, does she mean, “I have someone on the other line, I’ll call you right back” or does she mean, “I don’t want to talk to you now or ever”?

      Social skills classes can help kids learn to use the second half of “I’m fine, how are you?” But picking up on intent, tone, and layers of meaning is a whole other level or difficult. I’d be interested in hearing from those who teach this curriculum. How do we avoid being “Sheldon” from “The Big Bang”?


      Glad you wrote. The analogy with the electromagnetic spectrum is brilliant.

  5. Mark Peterson

    I have to respond to this one, as it is a foundational element of communication. It is not only important to respond by LISTENING with your students. I find this practice of listening great for my grand children. When they ask PAPA, do you know XXX, I let them tell me about it rather than shut down the conversation with a “Oh, I already know”. If we don’t take time to listen, we miss the wonderful experience of seeing Discovery first hand.
    I use this as a key ingredient in my business as well. I teach all our executives and consultants to just listen….

    We learn a lot.

    Wonderful definition of building trust.


  6. Sharon FitzGerald

    Love this, David. I’m sending it to everyone I know who works with “spectrummy”
    kids…you’re the best! Warm regards, Sharon

  7. Sharron

    My wonderful son is 19 and Autistic. I understand what you may be going through David. My husband wrote a book on autism and about people mainly adults with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. “Who Will Care For Them”, available on Amazon. Our worries as a older couple with one son who is autistic, is what infrastructures are in place for the many young children on the spectrum who will soon be adults on the spectrum.

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