Autism’s Generation Gap

Every conversation I’ve had with parents of autistic Americans has been riddled with salient moments, when essential truths are revealed about this extraordinarily complex developmental disorder. “Ah ha!” moments, so to speak. Such was the case with my July 2 conversation with Lisa Roach, who lives just outside the Ohio River town of Mount Vernon, Ind.

I had driven to the Posey County capital with Bloomington Alternative intern Megan Erbacher, who had grown up just down the road and has been friends with Roach’s daughter Chelsea since childhood. Stan and Lisa Roach’s oldest, 26-year-old Travis, has Asperger’s Disorder, which is commonly known as “high-functioning autism.” While his symptoms had been evident for years, Travis wasn’t diagnosed until he was 8. At that time, Lisa learned her son was the first autistic child in the Mount Vernon school system.

Through Megan, Lisa had agreed to share her family’s story and, after a stopover in Rockport, Ind., to interview Rex Winchell, an 84-year-old activist who battles the Ohio Valley’s economic dependence on coal-fired industrial plants, we drove past Megan’s home and pulled into Lisa’s driveway. The scene — a one-story sandstone home on a tree-ringed, spacious plot with a pond that appears at first glance to be a small lake — offers the sort of imagery that has inspired generations of Hoosier artists, from T.C. Steele to Darryl Jones.

We had spent about 50 minutes with Rex, who works at the Spencer County Hospice on the courthouse square, and would spend about a half hour more than that in Lisa’s living room, talking with her and, off and on, Travis.

Needless to say, we covered an overwhelming amount of ground during our day in Southwest Indiana, and it’s going to take some time and work to get these stories properly crafted. But there were a couple of salient moments worthy of quickie treatments, both of which reminded me of similar moments I’ve experienced over the past 20 months.


Travis is the first autistic person I’ve actually conversed with. Over the course of this project I’ve interviewed a half dozen parents with autistic kids; shaken hands with, observed and photographed a 22-year-old man with Autistic Disorder, also known as “full-blown autism,” who lives in a group home in Indianapolis and requires professional care, 24-7; and shared space with (but only caught a fleeting glimpse of) a 15-year-old girl with Asperger’s.

Travis was my conversational initiation, and our interaction was reminiscent of Cathy Pratt’s observation back in February 2009: “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” Cathy is director at IU’s Indiana Resource Center for Autism and board chair of the Autism Society of America. Her point was that the range of symptoms that accompany autism are so disparate that no two individuals on the spectrum are alike. Each is unique.

I knew that one trait those with Asperger’s and Autistic Disorder share are tendencies toward repetitive behaviors, so I wasn’t surprised that Travis was in near-constant motion during our time together. As he arced 180 degrees around us in the expansive living room with picture-window view of the pond, back and forth, back and forth, Lisa observed with a resonant laugh: “We walk a lot of miles in a day.”

I likewise understood that Aspies, as they are sometimes called, do not share many of the communication deficits that those with Autistic Disorder do. They are conversational and often are exceptionally intelligent, with keen minds for details.

Travis is into sports, for example, and much like Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in the movie Rain Man, he has instant and encyclopedic recall of historic details, from dates to stats to individual plays. He’s a New York Nick’s fan, and when the conversation turns to Reggie Miller and his spectacular play in the final seconds of a 1995 NBA Playoff game, Travis had the scorecard.

“It was in 1995, it was Game 1 of the Eastern Semifinals,” he says. “They was at New York, and the Nick’s led, I think, they led like 102-95 with less than 20 seconds.” He didn’t have the score exactly right, but his recall was perfect in every other respect, including Miller’s legendary performance. The score was 105-99 (according to NBA.com) with 18.7 seconds left when Miller scored eight points in 11 seconds. The Pacers won 107-105 and went on to oust the Nicks, just as Travis had said.

I also knew that those on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum lack appropriate skills in what mental health professionals call “social reciprocity.” When it came time to say good-bye, Travis re-emerged from the basement where he was watching racing, darted into the room, made furtive eye contact, said good-bye and vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

But one trait that I had associated with Asperger’s was an inability to listen to others. So, even though I knew that he has worked at McDonald’s since high school and knows nearly everyone who comes in the place, I was surprised when Travis engaged me directly when we spoke. At that point, I realized I knew one person with autism.


The greatest “Ah-ha!” moment of the day for me was when I asked Lisa about the reactions she gets from others when Travis is out in public. While the family almost never went out when he was growing up, as Travis has matured, he’s become amenable to forays into the real world. He is a fanatical race fan, and Stan and Lisa, both Posey County natives, often take him to NASCAR events in Bristol, Tenn. Family and friends take him to ball games.

In terms of negative reactions to Travis, Lisa casts the tale in generational terms. “There’s a couple adults at McDonalds that’s had problems with his talking,” she says. But Chelsea and Megan’s generation — both are college seniors — has grown up with the nationwide autism epidemic. More than one in four children in the Metropolitan School District of Mount Vernon — 26.1 percent — received special education services during the 2008-09 school year, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

“They don’t think anything about them,” Lisa says. “It’s adults who have problems.”

And that reminded me of another salient moment I experienced with the father of an elementary-aged boy with Asperger’s. Only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he suggested a day’s worth of awareness-raising events where kids with autism mix with the public. His suggested title for the event:

“Get Over It, It’s Autism.”

STEVEN HIGGS can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.




More articles by:

Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

September 20, 2018
Michael Hudson
Wasting the Lehman Crisis: What Was Not Saved Was the Economy
John Pilger
Hold the Front Page, the Reporters are Missing
Kenn Orphan
The Power of Language in the Anthropocene
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
Puerto Rico’s Unnatural Disaster Rolls on Into Year Two
Rajan Menon
Yemen’s Descent Into Hell: a Saudi-American War of Terror
Russell Mokhiber
Nick Brana Says Dems Will Again Deny Sanders Presidential Nomination
Nicholas Levis
Three Lessons of Occupy Wall Street, With a Fair Dose of Memory
Steve Martinot
The Constitutionality of Homeless Encampments
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
The Aftershocks of the Economic Collapse Are Still Being Felt
Jesse Jackson
By Enforcing Climate Change Denial, Trump Puts Us All in Peril
George Wuerthner
Coyote Killing is Counter Productive
Mel Gurtov
On Dealing with China
Dean Baker
How to Reduce Corruption in Medicine: Remove the Money
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior