The Man Who Was Almost an Island

“Doug would forcefully resist anyone who interfered with what he wanted to do, but other than that, he didn’t interact with people at all.”

Language is a bond between people, and Doug would have none of that. If a person who cannot speak is nonverbal, then Doug was non-linguistic: he didn’t speak or understand speech, he didn’t sign or understand signs. He had a strong sense of order and dealt very well with the physical environment, but he had less capacity for language than any other client. Because of that, his mental age was once estimated at two.

If I set a few tools on a table and asked a client—Dave, Cyrus, anyone—to point to the hammer, he would. But Doug would not. It was not that he pointed to the wrong tool; he wouldn’t make a move toward any of them. He’d just sit there. This was not because of any hearing problem. Indeed, Doug always did well on hearing tests: the moment sounds came through the headset, he’d begin to laugh. But Doug never made the connection between the words I was saying and the tools that were in front of him. He was proficient at driving nails, but he never knew it was a hammer he was using.

Communication—i.e., any attempt to “make common,” to share with other people—was foreign to Doug, as indeed all people were foreign to him. This went way beyond his abstention from language. He never waved at, or shook hands with, or hugged anyone; he never gave any sign of recognition. He always looked straight ahead, making no eye contact. People didn’t seem to affect him at all.

Doug exploded in laughter once in a while, but it was private laughter. It had no apparent cause. He’d be walking along with his usual serious look when all of a sudden he’d bust out laughing. He would get so carried away that he’d start running, and keep running as long as he was laughing. Doug never noticed how people reacted to him, but to see this man running down the hall, laughing without inhibition, always made me laugh in turn.

But Doug did not laugh at anyone or with anyone; like everything else about him, his laughter was strictly his own. Doug would forcefully resist anyone who interfered with what he wanted to do, but other than that, he didn’t interact with people at all. He recognized the difference between people and things, but felt no commonality with anyone else: he did not see himself as a member of a social group. He was aware that there were other people—other beings who worked and walked and ate—but not that there were other persons, other centers of consciousness. He was the only person he knew.

Doug was about 5’9″ and 170 pounds, and had a slightly bulbous nose. His dark hair was usually combed down, but sometimes he had a cowlick that hovered above him and swayed to the rhythm of his walk.

He was often confused about where he was supposed to go. Whenever I said, “Go upstairs to class, Doug,” he’d get up from his seat and walk hesitantly toward the ramp. Halfway across the workfloor he’d stop, then stand there frowning, with one hand on his forehead: uncertainty seemed to give him a headache. He wouldn’t proceed until he received confirmation. “Go ahead, Doug,” I’d say. Immediately he’d shoot off toward the ramp, his arms pumping, his face stern. Digging his heels in with each step, he’d appear unstoppable. He always seemed to be either utterly befuddled or absolutely determined.

Doug could follow certain instructions, but it was not unlike the way a dog obeys simple commands. The words had no meaning in themselves, but certain lines, said in a particular context and tone of voice, served as cues that told him to stop or go.

When the teachers passed out lunches, Doug usually stood six or eight feet from the lunch cabinet, looking down, squinting, seemingly in pain. Other clients, eager to get to their food, swirled around him as though he were the center post of a revolving door. As soon as a teacher spotted him and said, “Here’s your lunch, Doug,” he’d come get it.

How irregular the world must have seemed to Doug! Without language, he could not discern society’s patterns. He knew nothing of the days of the week, and so could not have understood why he went to the Center one day, remained at his group home the next, and visited his parents the following day. A lot of clients couldn’t tell time very well, but only Doug was unaware of what a clock was, and how it dictated his comings and goings. As he was shuttled from morning meeting to the workfloor to a classroom to the lunchroom to the workfloor to the lunchroom to the workfloor to a classroom to the lunchroom to the workfloor to a van, his travels must have seemed random, subject only to the caprices of supervisors and teachers. Classes had to be especially puzzling, as he sat for long periods of time doing nothing, while all around him people wiggled their fingers and made sounds. They might as well have been speaking in tongues.

Doug was going to bring some order to this chaotic world. All of us need some structure in our lives, some familiar tasks or habitual behaviors that give us a sense of stability and control. For Doug, these often came from within. He devised almost ritualistic routines that he could do on his own, routines that satisfied his instinct for order. He sought to drown out the irregular rhythms of society with his own steady beat.

Every time he went down to the basement, Doug did his dusting. First he walked across the lobby to the receptionist’s area, where he wiped the length of the counter with his hand. Then he walked over to the ramp banister, and as he went downstairs, he kept one hand on the rail all the way, wiping it back and forth as he went. With his other hand he touched each banister support post. If a supervisor tried to hurry him along, Doug would walk faster, but his routine was sacrosanct, and he never abridged it.

At lunch, after he finished eating, I’d tell him he could use the bathroom, but usually he responded with confused headache looks, and had to be urged repeatedly. Once there, however, he established residency. One day I forgot that Doug was still in the bathroom when I gave Chuck permission to go. Chuck returned a minute later, tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed down the short hallway to the restroom: “Doug!” Apparently Chuck had opened the door to the small, one-person men’s room, only to find it occupied. After watching Doug for a while, Chuck left the door open and got me. Now we both stood outside the bathroom, looking in. Doug had finished using the toilet and was getting ready to flush it. He grabbed the handle with one hand, then the other hand. He touched the handle with one shoe, then the other shoe. Finally he pushed the handle down with one hand and one foot simultaneously.

Chuck looked at me. “Wha’s he doing, Lay?”

I gave him the best answer I could. “He’s flushing the toilet.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

After that, Doug washed his hands, but when he started wiping the sink and the faucets with paper towels, Chuck had had enough. “Doug!” he said impatiently. But Doug would not be diverted. He proceeded to wipe the floor around the toilet and the sink while Chuck, annoyed, appealed to me: “Lay!” I figured this had to run its course, however, so Chuck and I watched for another minute. Finally Doug threw his paper towels away, then pushed everything in the trash can down to the bottom. I followed Doug back to the lunchroom while Chuck, just as he was closing the door, called out, “Thank you, Lay!”

Another time Grant went into the bathroom and soon afterward cried out. I ran in there and saw him screaming only a few feet away from Doug, who was in the process of flushing the toilet. Evidently Grant had barged in on him and tried to order him out. I don’t know exactly how Doug responded, but at the very least he had held his ground and was now continuing with his routine, impervious to Grant’s wailing. You had to like a client who would stand up to Grant.

One day when Doug didn’t return to work after lunch, I went looking for him, finally finding him in the basement bathroom. I badgered him until he came out. He followed me down the hall, but by the time I turned the corner to enter the workfloor, he had disappeared. I walked halfway back down the hall and heard water running in the janitor’s closet. The door was closed and the closet had no light, but when I opened the door there was Doug, washing his hands in the dark at the deep sink that was used for buckets and mops. It seemed odd, especially because he had already washed his hands in the bathroom, but clearly he had gone through this sequence of sinks before. After he finished washing, he dried his hands and wiped off the sink, using each rag in the closet in turn. Eventually I got him out of there, but this time I walked behind him so that he couldn’t run back to either the janitor’s sink or the bathroom sink.

Doug was exactly where he wanted to be, however, because as soon as we reached the workfloor, he marched right over to that sink. He started washing his hands again, and I couldn’t get him to stop until I put the bar of soap in a cupboard. Then he began grabbing paper towels, one after another. It looked as if he might keep going until he emptied the dispenser, so I covered the slot with my hand.

By now, Doug was tired of my interference. “Wo!” he said—as he always did when someone or something had gotten on his nerves—then sucked his cheeks way in and glared at me: the only time he ever made eye contact was when he was angry, and ready to attack. He bit one of his fists; the other was poised in front of his shoulder. Sometimes things went beyond this point, and he’d try to dig his fingernails into my forearm or stomp on my toes. This time, though, he settled down. He dried his hands, cleaned the sink, compressed the towels in the trash can, and went to work.

Doug was diagnosed autistic with compulsive behaviors. Autism is generally characterized by a lack of engagement with other people, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, and an insistence on unchanging physical routines. Given Doug’s condition, we tried to keep his rituals from consuming too much of his time, but that was all. We wanted to limit them, not eliminate them. Usually Doug was docile and hardworking; he resisted staff only when he felt driven to do things his way. Doug was not defiant or noncompliant; he knew nothing of our rules. The only rules he knew were his own internal ones, and these he had to obey.

The one time I took Doug out to the campground, he made it clear that thoroughness was worth fighting for. I thought he was a natural for that crew because of his obsession with cleanliness: who better to pick up papers and cigarette butts? As soon as we got out of the van, he ran down the campground path, laughing uncontrollably. When we reached our starting point, I gave him a sack and showed him what to do. When training Doug, I always tried not to let him develop any bad habits, because once he became accustomed to doing something a certain way, getting him to change was nearly impossible. So the moment I noticed that he was picking up very little trash but a lot of weeds, I went over and took the weeds out of his sack. Then I walked with him for a few minutes, saying “Good, Doug,” whenever he grabbed a piece of paper, and “No, Doug,” whenever he reached for a weed.

Evidently I said “No, Doug” one time too many. He ran, really ran, over to me—I was about ten feet away—grabbed my arm, and started kicking at my shins, all the while emitting a high-pitched, piercing shriek. I pushed him away, hoping that would be the end of it. But he ran at me again, shrieking and clutching and kicking, and again I pushed him away. “Stop it, Doug! That’s enough!” When he shrieked and charged and grabbed me a third time, I shoved him harder than before. He stumbled and fell to the ground, a little stunned.

I gathered the startled clients and led them to the nearest picnic table. “No, Doug!” they were all saying. “Bad, Doug, bad!” I told them to sit quietly, then phoned the Center and said that Doug had gone berserk. When two staff members came to pick him up, they saw the other clients sitting with me at one table, and Doug at the next table, as placid as could be. He got in their car, calm and cooperative, and they drove him back to the Center.

Doug was a voracious eater, and after finishing a meal he’d look longingly at other people’s food, though he never took any. Usually his lunch was the limp, meager fare provided by the group homes, but whenever he spent the weekend with his parents, he’d come to work on Monday with a feast. He’d take huge bites out of the thick sandwiches his mother made, then wolf down the homemade cake and fresh fruit.

Doug was twenty-five years old, the youngest child in his family. Boulder officials evaluated him at one time but felt that because of his autism, he wouldn’t fit in there. He attended Special Education for several months, but after having a number of outbursts, he was asked to leave. At eighteen, Doug moved into a group home because his mother could no longer control his aggressiveness. Whenever he left the group home and visited his parents, however, he was an asset around the house: he made his bed, vacuumed, washed the dishes—always returning each dish to the right spot on the right shelf—and did the dusting.

Whether in the lunchroom or on the workfloor, Doug didn’t spend much time looking around the room, watching other people. He didn’t exhibit the strong curiosity that almost all of us have about the behaviors and interactions of others. In fact, there were only three things I ever saw that really aroused Doug’s curiosity. He was curious about other people’s food, he was curious about women clients wearing tank tops, and he was curious about tools. Any time he saw an unfamiliar tool being used, he stopped whatever he was doing and watched with great interest.

Doug was strong and sturdy and had capable hands. In the Toy Department, he quickly learned how to use the crescent wrench, but had trouble with the ratchet wrench. He could attach the socket to the wrench, place the socket over the nut, and turn the wrench the right way, but he was puzzled if the nut was still not being tightened. Whenever that happened, I had him flip the pointer that determined whether the wrench would tighten or loosen the nut. But for the sake of completeness, as soon as he flipped it one way, he wanted to flip it right back.

One day he was struggling with the ratchet wrench while I was helping another client. “Wo!” Suddenly he put the wrench down, ran over to the tool chest, and grabbed a crescent wrench.

“Doug, no,” I said, then went over to his work station and covered the nut with my hand. I wanted him to become skilled with both wrenches, not just one.

“Wo!” He glared at me and sucked his cheeks in. But when I offered him the ratchet wrench he took it, and gave me the crescent wrench. Since he had no choice but to keep using the ratchet wrench, he eventually became adept with it.

For a while in the Toy Department I had an eight-man crew that built small wooden racks for storing firewood. Doug was the top man on that crew, the only one who could attach the legs to the base. This operation involved the use of templates, wrenches, and a drill press, along with an unwieldy jig for fitting the pieces together. Doug was proficient at this task, hesitating only when he had to walk across the workfloor to do the drilling. He’d stand by his work station with his confused headache look until I said, “Go ahead, Doug.” Then, all business, he’d walk vigorously to the drill press and resume his work.

In the Glass Department, too, he was skilled and industrious. His first day in the grouting area, I had him watch for a few minutes as another client grouted a glass; then I let him hold and squeeze the grout. He seemed intrigued by the prospect of yet another way his hands could control the world around him.

He became a good grouter, using his strong hands to pack the grout between the mosaic pieces. He could even do the most difficult glasses, the ones with stems and bases. But if a chunk of grout fell out, Doug, instead of just patching that one spot, would reapply grout to the whole top edge or the whole base or even the whole outside. Refusing to give one spot special treatment, he’d perform the entire step over. His passion for completeness also required that he rub the grout on the inside and bottom of the glass, even though he had to wipe it right off.

Whether he was grouting, cleaning a sink, or assembling a firewood rack, Doug found the use of his hands definite and satisfying. What a break they provided from society, which so bewildered and immobilized him! Doug felt kinship for no one, yet he wasn’t lonely: his hands were company enough.

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