Autistic SAVANT (A True Story)

By Art Rosengarten, Ph.D.


“You saw WHAT at 2726 Divisadero?”  I ask affecting dismay.

“A clock with ONE hand!” Dave repeats from the front seat.

“Are you sure it had only one hand? What color was it?”

“Greenish,” he says with great pressure as puddles of sweat wash down his engorged, 40ish, forehead. We’re on our weekly two hour drive through the streets of San Francisco. It’s the best therapy at this time for Dave.

I continue calmly. “Curious,” I say, “just one hand on the clock?”

“It only went up to ten!” he shoots right back, his huge hairy frame leaning into my driver’s seat, beckoning my response.  David is an unkempt, particularly plump, lovable, though wily, bearded autistic savant.

“Hmmm…” I ponder aloud. “Goes up to ten only, and GREENISH?”

“It was in the produce section” he quickly adds, his eyes still pinned to my deliberately slow-coming response. Through the hairy upturned mouth I see the sly smile of a five year-old prankster.

“Produce section, produce section,” I repeat for his benefit. “Wait a minute Dave,” I break out, “hey that’s not a clock my man, that’s a scale!”

His giddy laughter bellows predictably through the car leaving my unique friend in stitches.  Mischief has always been his best medicine; it lets him share the madness with the rest of us who have mastered the peculiarities of his odd universe.  We’ve gone through the scale routine perhaps five or six hundred times over the past four years, but it still delights David to no end.  Who needs talk therapy when there are so many one-handed round greenish things in produce sections of corner grocery stores.

Dave’s arm-flapping and deep perspiration have lessened considerably, and I feel renewed confidence that we will make it to the bridge in time for the Navane prn to kick in. Nevertheless, traffic is unpredictable once we pass Market Street.  I continue with the intervention, trying to broaden it a bit.

“OK now David, HOW many?” I ask pretending to share his disdain, my hands on the wheel as I watch him through the corners of my eyes engage in his favorite ritual to reorient his mind.   I refer of course to “how many seconds” have elapsed in the respective red light/green light intervals at the current intersection on Buchanan Street which Dave is now studiously monitoring on his wristwatch.

“23 seconds on Buchanan and 29 seconds on Van Ness,” he reports matter-of-factly like the “traffic light monitor” he fancies himself, adding the highly predictable:

“For NO reason!” but sneering this last qualifier, as if to bemoan “not again!” before quickly turning to me with the all crucial question:

“Do you think there’s a reason?”

Ah yes.  It was working. Today I suggest, perhaps, because Buchanan was Republican unlike our President Carter, or quite possibly, because Van Ness has two names and naturally would need more signal time.

“What are your thoughts on the matter David?” I put it back to him. It facilitates enhanced conversation.

“Maybe so” he says like clockwork, greatly calmed by the insight even though we both know full well that he has put to memory the precise red and green light time-sequences of every traffic signal in the Bay Area (with the exception of a few outskirt communities like Freemont or  Atherton where neither I, nor Dave’s other part-time caregivers, have driven him) just as he has put to memory precisely every action  he’s taken on every day since March 27, 1953, that defining moment when David first discovered his memory, or so he claims.  Our conversation is simply a shared rerouting of his agitated state into things that are soothing for him.  “Utilization” is what the technique is commonly called, but I daresay it was never intended for quite this sort of therapeutic intervention.

February is predictably David’s worst month. It marks the anniversary month of when a former “conversationalist” named Melissa refused to accept money for her time spent talking with David. This was the highest expression of genuine affection that David had ever known. Every February like clockwork he relives the love and loss of Melissa.  The flapping starts up again for several intense moments.  Imagine a grown man flailing his head and arms like a tattered sail in hurricane winds, sweat soaking his clothes from the squalls of his own isolate soul. His pain rippling through his spine and out his extremities like an epileptic seizure, David becomes a virtual earthquake.

“I just knew she wouldn’t call” Dave moans as he does all the dreaded weeks of February since February 27, 1972. Melissa had refused her salary on that day because “David was a person to her.”  One week later, as the story goes, she relocated to San Diego. David was never the same. The cruelty of autism is the inability to forget.  Now between the agitated sighs come more tenacious waves of flaps, drips, shakes and screams, with occasional “yelling pain” due to what David says feels like “nails poking my eyeballs.”  Never to my knowledge has David been able to cry.

I continue to try to hold it together. Though traffic’s now moving well on Van Ness, I begin to worry (as has his entire team of doctors, therapists, roommates, and conversationists all this week) over the possibility of another dreaded 51/50. Involuntary hospitalization. Not even the Berkeley police can stomach bringing in poor Dave when he gets like this. Utterly harmless as he is, he’s still a handful.  When agitated and psychotic, David  could scare the heck out of you, even though he has never so much as touched a person during a rage attack.  For now I just have to get us home–we can evaluate later.  We have twenty city blocks or more to the bridge, so I decide to try another tact.

“Dave,” I say gently, keeping my eyes to the road while he’s vibrating like a jackhammer in full autistic rage, “tell me what you ate for lunch everyday of June in the year 1956? I’d really be interested.”  June was traditionally a good month, I guessed on ‘56.  Lunch was a favorite topic of memory.

His flapping then halted for some seconds as he took this in. It was an unusual request, even from me. But he seemed to trust where I was going with it and sort of downshifted into more moderate, manageable shakes and rocking– he now could almost think and talk while he flapped.  With great effort, dare I say, valiantly, in a clipped and extremely rapid, pressured voice, Dave began to answer as best he could:

“On Monday June 1st, 1956 I had a plain cheeseburger with absolutely nothing on it.

On Tuesday June 2nd, 1956 I had a plain cheeseburger with absolutely nothing on it.

On Wednesday June 3rd, 1956 I had a plain cheeseburger with absolutely nothing on it.”

“Really Dave,” I break in, trying to slow him down enough to expand and level off a little. “Any fries?” I ask, affecting as much curiosity as possible.

“No!” he grips and yells back with in a whining contempt.   “Just a PLAIN CHEESEBURGER WITH ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ON IT!”

My interruption has upset him, but I think we are making progress.  “Let’s continue, this is really excellent Dave,” I say.  “What did you have for lunch on that Thursday, June 4th, 1956?”

“A plain cheeseburger with absolutely nothing on it.”

“No kidding.” I said. “Not even a little catsup?”


“How about Friday June 5, 1956?”

“A tuna fish sandwich,” he says. “Mother and Johnnie told me to eat fish on Fridays.”  Eureka!

“I’ll be darned” I say trying to suspend this development for as long as possible“Did you like the tuna fish?”

“No.” He said.

“What kind of bread?”

“White bread.”

“Well O.K., how about on Saturday June 6th, 1956, what did you have then?”

“A cheeseburger.” he declared.

“Plain without catsup?” I ask.


“Anything on it at all?”

“No” he answers, “absolutely nothing. And mother ordered a small Cobb salad with thousand island dressing ‘cause she had a virus in her throat and Johnnie had to laugh. I don’t know why Johnnie laughed?  Do you think that’s laughable, comical, and humorous?” He asked this in his old daffy voice, the one I thought we’d lost.

“No Dave, not particularly, can’t say that I do” I respond, noticing the beads of sweat on my own brow.  I knew we were now good. The Bay Bridge entrance could be seen two blocks ahead and there was lots here left to explore.  Maybe it was just the Navane kicking in.

© Copyright 1997 by Arthur Rosengarten. All rights are reserved and may not be reprinted without the written permission of the author.