Here is a great story from Bob Clark. He shared this at August’s Tenx9 “I Was Never the Same Again.”
On September 10, 2007, a Chicago court extended my emergency guardianship powers over my eighteen year old, autistic nephew, Jimmy, allowing me to take him home to Tennessee. We drove from the courthouse straight to his residential treatment facility, packed up, and headed back to Nashville.
I had plenty of time to think on the road. I knew my life would be very different. Forever. To put it mildly, I’m not the best fit for de facto parent of an autistic person. For one, I rarely put things mildly. I was barely patient enough for my high school honors and AP physics students. But I also knew I had to try. After a hectic day in court and packing, I was too tired to make it all the way back to Nashville. I hoped that arriving home on 9/11 was not an omen.
Over the years my nephew has had enough diagnoses to fill up a good-sized paragraph. I thought he didn’t really fit any of them, so they kept trying new ones. His two primary diagnoses are intellectual disabilities and autism.
For a long time I was skeptical of the autism diagnosis. Because he’s more social than I am. He talks…and talks…and talks. He *needs* to talk more than any human being I’ve ever seen, which seemed to be the opposite of autism to me.
But he had the obsession part covered: wood and trees, Christmas–bonus points for Christmas trees–weather, audio technology–especially old storage formats like cassettes, vinyl, reel-to-reel, and, most of all, 8-track tapes.
One odd thing about my nephew that belies all his misfortune in life is his incredible enthusiasm, which I don’t associate with autism. So he never quite fit the labels to me. He was Jimmy. He had a chronic case of Jimmyitis. That’s all. But autism is a spectrum, and after I watched the movie about the remarkable Temple Grandin, and saw all the similarities, I was convinced that he was on the spectrum.
No matter how you label him, Jimmy’s always been a handful. He was permanently expelled from the Essex County, Virginia school system in the 4th grade. They said they couldn’t provide a free and appropriate education. I’ve seen the records and reports and I don’t blame ’em. For one week he was a Tasmanian Devil, slapping, biting, and cussing everything within range. He’s calmed down a lot since then.
I had to give the Chicago court a plan for what he’d do in Nashville. They were big on having a plan. My only educational option was Hillsboro High School. He hadn’t been in a public school since the fourth grade. Surely wouldn’t last long at Hillsboro, but I didn’t have a better plan.
Sure enough, within weeks he had couple of fights with students at Hillsboro, and he was suspended for 2 days. I asked him why he’d hit the boy, and he said he was annoying. I read him the Riot Act, desperately trying to make him understand how much trouble hitting people had caused him during his life. I told him he couldn’t do it anymore. Period.
There were other conflicts during those early months. Lots of variations of the Riot Act were read. But he started to settle in at Hillsboro. Then he started to thrive.
They have a wonderful special needs program there, and they also offer a class called audio technology. Jimmy made a CD of himself singing, a teacher heard it, and he was soon in the chorus. Someone else heard him singing to himself, which led weeks later to him belting out How Sweet It Is at the Belmont Curb Center at a Pencil Foundation luncheon, receiving a rousing standing ovation. He’d already exceeded my wildest expectations, many times over.
He developed a fixation on sports and became a regular fixture at Hillsboro football and basketball games. He won a senior school spirit award and was even chosen fan of the year for boys basketball the year after he graduated.
Who could have predicted that Hillsboro would be a nurturing environment for someone like Jimmy? Frankly, given his previous history, his success there was preposterous. Beyond their superb special needs program, and the fact that they sold Christmas trees on school grounds during the holidays, I have no explanation. I certainly take no credit.
But things weren’t always so warm and fuzzy at home. Jimmy is the only human being in the world who is forced to live with me, and that’s not an easy burden to bear. Just ask my ex-wife.
One day I noticed that the back door was slightly ajar, which was odd because I never used it. I found out that Jimmy had sneaked out in the middle of the night to watch snow flurries. Remember, weather is one of his big obsessions.
I explained to him why he absolutely could not do this. He was endangering himself, and me, by wandering around outside at all hours of the night and leaving the door unlocked. I put a piece of tape on the door so I could see if he disobeyed me, which he did.
I went ballistic. I told him he couldn’t live with me if didn’t follow my rules. He’d have to find somewhere else. I know that wasn’t the best thing to say to someone like him, who’d been through so much chaos and instability in his life. You probably couldn’t find an an expert to endorse that kind of ultimatum. But that’s what I did. And I meant it, too.
I ended up nailing a piece of wood across that door, and for awhile I slept on the couch pushed up against the other door. I wish I could say this was our only major flare up, but we had them often enough during those early years that we had a term for them: Armageddon. It was pretty fitting.
But Jimmy’s enthusiasm is a force of nature that can’t be contained for long. Nothing in this crazy world has crushed his irrational exuberance. I was certainly no match.
Jimmy’s singing opportunities continued to blossom in Nashville. He often sings the national anthem around town, such as at the OVC men’s basketball tournament last March. One of his favorites was at senior day for the Lady Bisons softball team, partly because it was his first gig for a college game and partly because David Lipscomb is such a friend to Special Olympics, which he cherishes more than you can imagine.
The most insane singing opportunity Jimmy had was as one of Darius Rucker’s backup singers at the Academy of Country Music Awards Show in Las Vegas in 2011. Yeah. The day of the show, a friend sent me a message that she had just seen Jimmy interviewed live on the Red Carpet on the Great American Country network. Yeah.
He also has an amateur radio transmitter that he uses to broadcast from his bedroom on 103.9 FM. I make him get permission from the musicians before playing their songs on the air. Still, he has accumulated quite a library, including everything Amy Grant has written and performed.
As you can see, in many ways Jimmy has led a charmed life in Nashville. He just keeps walking into opportunities that I have nothing to do with. Such as when a shortwave radio station broadcast a recording of him singing into China, India, and other parts of Asia. We bought a receiver from Radio Shack, and I built an extra antenna out of wire to try to pick up the broadcast in July 2012. We went to a big hill in Nashville late at night, and I spread my wires out on the ground. We barely heard, through the crackle of interference, Jimmy’s voice as it was being transmitted to Asia and parts unknown.
This was one of those times where Jimmy’s enthusiasm had rubbed off on me. As I listened to my nephew, hardly discernible above the static, I wondered how many others were listening at the same time and what effect he was having on him.
Given their recent success, perhaps it was inevitable that Jimmy would become fixated on Vanderbilt football. He sometimes monitors Twitter feeds late into the night for the latest recruiting rumors. By mid-summer his excitement for the upcoming season can’t be contained. I tell him that I don’t really want to talk about football in July. I’m perfectly happy to wait until the week of the first game. Sometimes I have to tell him again, not so politely. We once had an Armageddon-level argument over when we can start talking about Vandy football. I told you I’m not patient.
But somehow we’ve made it work. Like his success at Hillsboro and Nashville and so many other things in Jimmy’s life, it defies any conventional explanation.
Once I took on my nephew, I was never the same again. But not entirely the way I’d envisioned. If I add it all up, and tally the books, I think Jimmy has given me more than I’ve given him. I really do. Despite my innate grouchiness, some of his irrational exuberance rubs off on me. It has to. Just being around him. He lifts me up in ways he’ll never understand. Even if I don’t feel like talking about Vanderbilt football in July.