The Roots of a Neurodiversity Scholar

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Bruton Parish church today. In our own time many neurodiverse people are drawn to science and technology. However, those disciplines were just becoming established in the colonial era. For most of the past two millennia, the home for such studies was the church.

In the late 1660s an unemployed Anglican priest in from Swinbrook, England pondered his next move. Times were tough in England. The war had ended, so the army and navy weren’t hiring. With a surplus of clergy, ministries with livings were tough to come by, even for a man with an Oxford education and a parent who’d spent his life in the church.

When his father died, leaving him some money and a library, Rowland Jones decided to take his chances in the newly established Virginia Colony. Both his parents were gone, and his uncle Edward and four of his sisters were already there. They’d been some of the early settlers to the colony.

In 1674 Rev. Jones joined his sisters and his uncle in the new land. He knew there was a need for clergy, and he hoped to find his fortune. He was welcomed by the vestrymen of Middle Plantation, who offered him the rectorship of the newly formed Bruton Parish. He served them for the next fourteen years,, marrying and raising a family in what is now Williamsburg.

Meanwhile his siblings established a Quaker community across the James River at Levy Neck. It may have been religious differences that led those relatives to Virginia, which in the mid-seventeenth century was still a pretty wild and dangerous land. Untimely death from accident and disease were still a part of life when Rowland arrived. A few years after settling, Rowland’s first wife succumbed, and he married again, only to die himself seven years after that. He left a behind two young children – six-year-old Orlando and three-year-old Anna Maria. In his will, he entrusted them to the care of his sister Bressie.

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The gravestone of Rowland Jones with its unusual Latin inscription, is preserved in the chancel of the present-day church, which was dedicated in 1715.

At about that same time, Rev. James Blair came to Bruton Parish, where he established the school we know today as the College of William & Mary. Blair had been sent by the Bishop of London to reform the wayward colonists. He began that process in a few years earlier in Jamestown, where he married and established a base. After weeding out the worst of the errant clergy, he realized the colony needed the ability to educate its own people and he turned his attention to the school.

By 1693 there were a number of well to do planters around Bruton Parish, and they were happy to have a school for their children. Orlando Jones wasn’t a rich man’s son, but Blair also saw potential in the young man, and took him in as one of William & Mary’s first students. By 1699, Orlando had become one of four Scholars in Residence – the first Virginia trained faculty. The next year Blair promoted Orlando to be usher of the grammar school – a position we now know as provost. In 1701, Jones traveled to London to study law, and when he returned he became the College’s first counsel, and a Burgess for Williamsburg.

Fast-forward three hundred years.

I was born in the south, where history has a hold on many families. My grandmother was a somewhat eccentric recluse who spent much of her time immersed in genealogy and the seventeenth century. She’s the one who traced our family’s generations from present-day Georgia through the Carolinas to their arrival in Virginia. There – on a family vacation – she introduced me to our Jones ancestors.

With all she told me and showed me, she never observed that her own sons had followed the same careers as those forbearers. My dad was a clergyman turned professor, and his brother was a lawyer. I went my own way, becoming a self-taught engineer and car mechanic.

The school years had not been very good for me, with one failure after another. “You could get A’s,” my teachers told me, “if only you applied yourself.” If only it were that easy! I had no problem learning about the things that interested me on my own, but try as I might I could not do the meaningless assignments my teachers gave me. Eventually I just stopped trying.

I concluded that school was just something I could not do, and I counted myself lucky that people in the adult world valued me for my skills, and not my academic credentials. Still I never lost the feeling of inferiority I got from that high school failure.

Everything changed for me when I learned about my own autism in middle age. For the first time in my life, I had an explanation for all my earlier social failures At first, I only knew autism in the context of myself. That changed as I got involved in the autism community, and I devoured papers and articles on autism science. As my knowledge grew I realized the eccentricities of my father, my grandmother and my son were all manifestations of the same thing. My father’s detachment and inability to relate to other people were signs of autism. My grandmother’s withdrawal and her fixation on minutiae of history were signs as well. The more I learned, the more signs I saw.

More disturbingly, I came to understand that my cousins who did not speak – but who communed happily with plants and animals – were not the idiots my grandparents had made them out to be. Most were nonverbal autistic people. I felt ashamed at how my family had treated those cousins. Then I began reading of other people who voiced similar objections, and they were beginning to coalesce around an idea they called neurodiversity – the concept that some amount of neurological diversity was not only normal, it was essential to the health of our species. That squared well with the emerging realization that differences like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia have always been part of our genome.

People like me were called neurodiverse, or neurodivergent. I liked that notion, particularly when I realized how many of my relatives deserved the same appellation.

Seeing those threads of autism woven throughout my family tree, I began to wonder how far back they reached. From my vantage point of middle age, I could see my generation, my son’s generation, and my parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents generation. When I looked at all the aunts, uncles and cousins I realized there were a great many “unusual” people.

When I started counting, I came to suspect that at least ten percent of my family members showed strong signs of neurodiversity. When I looked at that thread stretching five generations I saw it pointing right back to Rowland Jones and my other ancestors of his generation. At first I thought the question was, were they neurodiverse too? However I quickly realized some had to be different, and the real question was which ones carried that distinction.

Today we know that autistic people have been drawn to both the church and the law for their logic, ritual, and routine. If my Jones ancestors were autistic, their career choices certainly made sense. The million-dollar question was, how might I find out?

I wish I could say I’ve found that answer but so far it remains elusive. All I can say is that there are clues but not proof. What I do know is that science suggests there were neurodiverse people at the founding of William & Mary. And if the evidence of my genes reaches back to Jones, my own ancestors were among them.

If that’s so, I asked myself, what does that say about me and my son, as compared to Rowland and Orlando? My ancestors were leaders in their community and key figures in the establishment of a great university. We grew up as social outcasts who could not graduate from high school, let alone gain admission to a prestigious college. Clearly something has changed. Either my generation got dumber and less capable, or society and school changed to exclude us. It’s probably no surprise for you to read that I prefer the second interpretation.

Last year we had a TEDx series at William & Mary and I gave a talk on Organic Education. In that lecture, I argued that we’d all benefit from more hands-on learning in the manner in which humans evolved. I also argued that we’d all benefit from a school environment that was more welcoming to neurodiverse people. Today that’s embodied in our campus neurodiversity initiative and courses.

When the college appointed me to help lead this effort, they named me the neurodiversity Scholar in Residence. That’s a title that’s hardly used in modern day education, but I am proud to be a present day scholar in residence in honor of my ancestor, who was one of the first to hold that title at this institution’s founding.

John Elder Robison