This week I was lucky to catch a TV documentary from last year on BBC iPlayer while it was still available; The Growing Pains of a Teenage Genius, about a 13-year-old autistic savant, Cameron Thompson, who was doing an Open University degree course in mathematics.
He has a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome and he doesn’t find the level of maths at his own school challenging enough, so he is studying for his Open University degree alongside his school work.
Cameron severely lacks social skills, has very few friends and he has obsessions for Dr Who and World of Warcraft. (I know I’m not going to get away with adding those last two onto the list of Symptoms for ASD, but I really WANT TO because I’ve yet to find a human-being NOT on the spectrum, who was obsessed by either of these!)
Although he is exceptionally gifted in Maths, he has poor communication skills which result in difficulty explaining his answers, and explanations are strongly required for his OU degree course. One upsetting part of the film is seeing him struggle with the communication part of his degree course work – after a full day at school, no less. It is obvious that at this point he is behind on his sleep and is overdoing his studies. Even geniuses need breaks. I was shouting at the TV: “Take a break!” Then his Dad suggested he take a break. Oh good, he heard me!
At his new school, he is lucky that they have a center for autistic children and he is even paired up with another boy, Tim, who also has Asperger’s and shares some of his interests, and an intense dislike of Justin Beiber. (Although from what I can make out, all teenage boys dislike him; I think they must all be jealous).
While Tim appears highly opinionated, Cameron fails to notice other people’s points of view, and in true asperger’s style, he has an inability to be diplomatic or tactful. One example is where he is shown introducing himself to a bunch of other kids his own age, who live in his new neighborhood. The first things he tells them are his amazing maths abilities and how posh his last house was. Most kids would know that’s not the way to endear yourself to a new group of your peers, but it’s amazing how forgiving people are when there’s a documentary film crew around.
The accompanying Radio Times article describes his parents as “kooky” – which of course is a trigger word to me, to mean “has ASD”! Kooky, whacky, eccentric, weird, strange, geeky – yup, to me, they all mean that the poor sod is on the spectrum somewhere.
It is not his parents though, who are pushing him to get a degree early. That is his own decision. In fact his dad thinks Cameron is being way too hard on himself by studying so much and always expecting top grades. Cameron states several times throughout the film that “I’m desperate to achieve”.
This is very common in people on the autistic spectrum. And for many it is because they feel they need to prove themselves because they have always had trouble making friends because of poor communication and lack of social skills.
One of the reasons Cameron feels he HAS to get his degree in Applied Mathematics and then gain a Master’s degree straight afterwards, is that he has already imagined his life with no qualifications, and believes he will end up in a low paid job that will not stimulate him and he will become depressed as a result.
So he is under the common misconception that university is the only way to get a decent job. That might have been the case in the UK a few decades ago, but now the only thing it guarantees most people, is debt. Having gone through a terrible time at university, socially (long before my Aspergers diagnosis – or even the previous Bipolar diagnosis), I believe having a formal qualification is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Clearly, Cameron has not paid much attention to his parents’ careers. They are successfully self-employed Karate instructors. People on the autistic spectrum are born to be self-employed, as they can choose exactly what they do for a living, and custom-build their working day to their liking.
A maths genius would make an excellent software developer, for example. If Cameron were to learn both computer programming and online marketing, he could do very well with his own company. Cameron has strong views on the subject of art. “What’s the point?” asks the pragmatic teenager. Well, if functionality is what he’s after, then art has a function in web design, does it not?
He could build websites about daleks and WOW for a living and all the other computer games and sci-fi he’s into. Imagine how happy he’d be, doing something like that. And he probably wouldn’t even need WISIWIG editors either; he could do the whole design in HTML and CSS, and at lightning speed too.
Often, highly gifted people like Cameron are only known for their genius, hence the title of the documentary. But apart from his amazing ability with numbers, he is just like any other kid of his age with Aspergers.
He does funny voices and sings during speech. He struggles with communication and yearns to make friends like a “normal person”. He is very self-critical. He is highly ambitious, obsessive and a perfectionist. He is pragmatic and pedantic. He is naïve and often sees the world like a much younger child would. He is often oblivious to the objective of the other person during a conversation. He is impatient and gets easily stressed out. He must have had depression in the past, or he would not fear getting it as an adult, potentially in a boring job.
The film concluded with Cameron accepting that it would be better to do his maths degree at the same age everyone else does a degree, after a Cambridge professor told him he’ll be better able to cope when he is older, as he will be able to explain his answers more clearly.
I do hope his parents are as loving as they came across in the film. And it was great to see his teachers appear so understanding of his condition. I was terribly jealous because I was just branded a naughty kid and hated by almost all adults, so watching this documentary was very refreshing. But I think that Cameron is one of the lucky ones, and I can’t help thinking about all the kids out there (and adults with ASD), who have not had a diagnosis, but who struggle to interact on a daily basis because their brains are different to other people’s.
But I wish Cameron well. He is a good person, and I’m certain he will excel in whatever he ends up doing.