Dick Swanson's secret powers 

The ordinary life of an extraordinary man

Dick Swanson has super powers.

He's got perfect pitch, always has. He'll start singing Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and even nail that "da-da-da" guitar part at the beginning. He'll burst out with a deep baritone rendition of a '70s classic like Neil Diamond's "September Morn," astonishing bystanders.

He knows shadows. He checks the Missoulian every day, in print, to get the times for sunrise and sunset, and from there he knows where and when a certain triangle will fall across a wall or a tree trunk will become a diagonal across a sidewalk.

His memory is phenomenal. Tell him your birthday—let's say January 7, 1976—and in fewer than five seconds he can correctly tell you that you were born on a Wednesday. You say "May 6, 1957"—and he puts his fingers to his temples, and announces, "Monday." He can do this backward and forward, into the past and future. Imagine having that kind of memory, that calculating power in your head—and being kept under 24-hour supervision.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KOU MOUA

Dick, who is 57, can be intimidating with his 6'6" frame, especially for strangers when he raises his voice or stands too close.

He was sitting on his porch recently, drinking a diet Mountain Dew, when I asked him what it meant to him to be autistic.

It means having habits, he said. His voice was abrupt and robotic.

How old was he when he learned he had autism?

He can't remember.

•••

In 1953, the Soviets detonated an H-bomb, the University of Montana built Dahlberg Arena, and Max and Betty Swanson adopted an infant boy from the nursery wing of Shodair Children's Hospital in Helena and brought him to Missoula.

Max was an accountant. Betty was a hand model for Palmolive. They lived in a red house on Mount Street, blissfully unaware that there was anything out of the ordinary about Dick.

Max taught accounting at UM. Betty picked apples from the trees in their backyard to make apple sauce and pies. They took Dick to their cabin on Flathead Lake and swimming at Lolo Hot Springs. He watched his parents get ready for parties held by Lincoln Electric and the Missoula Electric Cooperative.

At some point, though, they must have realized Dick wasn't like other boys. In 1962, when he was 9, they sent him away, to the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago.

The Orthogenic School opened in 1915, for children with emotional disorders. Its dormitories had valuable antique furniture. The students ate on fine china with silverware. Dick rode on the subway.

click to enlarge Swanson finally got a home of his own in 2005 when he used money from his parents’ trust to have this Southside house built. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Swanson finally got a home of his own in 2005 when he used money from his parents’ trust to have this Southside house built.

He came home to Missoula in 1966. In 1968 he entered Hellgate High School, then switched to Sentinel High School in 1971. He remembers learning about cirrus and cumulus clouds in science class, and about stored potential energy, and having to ask teachers for help because he couldn't focus on his studies. He had a hard time talking to his classmates. He was thinking a lot about shadows and clouds and time zones.

In 1974, when Dick was 21, Betty and Max, apparently out of options, sent him to a group home in Helena. Dick remembers being drugged "like a zombie" there.

In 1980 he came home again. In April of that year, he remembers, he flew with his mom and dad to Palo Alto, Calif. He had $20. They went to The Sizzler for dinner two nights in a row. They were on the verge of changing over to daylight savings time. He was allowed to walk places by himself—he remembers that, and that he wanted to buy a cake and eat it all himself, but he knew his mom would be mad.

Back in Missoula, he moved out of Max and Betty's house again. This time he went to live with Father George Dumais, who cared for a handful of local men with disabilities. Dick started to get assistance from Opportunity Resources, Inc., a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities to get jobs, housing, counseling, transportation, and recreation. He got a job in ORI's wood products division, stacking boards. He lived in four ORI group homes.

Betty died in 1998. Max died the next year. Dick was alone in the world again, but his parents had left him a trust fund. He had enough money to have a house built on the south side of the city in 2005. He selected the design and the colors and moved into a quiet neighborhood.

•••

The term "autism" is derived from the Greek word for "self." It was coined in 1911 by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a symptom of schizophrenia that entailed withdrawing from society. In 1943 it was first used to describe a disorder unto itself, and the first diagnosis was made of what we now call autism.

The Orthogenic School, which Dick attended, took the lead in treating children with autism. From 1944 to 1969, under the direction of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the school became well known for its unorthodox and controversial treatments. Bettelheim instituted "milieu" therapy in which patients were placed in groups of 30. They were encouraged to form attachments and take responsibility for the group. The fine china and antique furniture was meant to give them a homey atmosphere and integrate them into society. Some were given electro-shock treatments.

Solutions for parents were hard to come by. Children with autism were frequently institutionalized. The Orthogenic School offered an alternative for the price of a boarding school, but it had its own costs. Bettelheim thought autism affected the children of emotionally frigid women, a theory that wasn't discredited until the 1970s, when other theories involving biology and environmental factors replaced it.

click to enlarge With the VSA Montana choir, Swanson sings the national anthem at the Western Montana Special Olympics in April. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • With the VSA Montana choir, Swanson sings the national anthem at the Western Montana Special Olympics in April.

After Bettelheim died in 1990, there would be two stories told: that he was a compassionate man who made great headway in helping students with autism at the Orthogenic School, and that he was a dictatorial patriarch whose treatment crossed the line into child abuse.

There are some core symptoms that denote autism: lack of facial expression, preoccupation with a narrow range of topics, repetitive speech, and difficulty understanding subtext or humor. But the symptoms differ from person to person. Mostly, it's become clear that autism can be dramatically different for each individual, giving way to the idea of an autistic spectrum. One person with autism might be barely able to communicate or function, while others, such as the author and animal rights activist Temple Grandin, can give national talks and use their autistic abilities to great advantage.

Dick Swanson is somewhere in the middle of all that. He has the powers of a savant, such as his perfect pitch and his memory. Yet he's frozen in the dilemma of not being able to fully use them or be recognized for them, because they seem to come with social limitations. He has trouble making eye contact. He gets easily distracted from some tasks while becoming obsessed with others. He can be overly literal. Words can become his Kryptonite.

•••

On the opening day of the Special Olympics in Missoula, in late April, Dick and the other choir members stand in a bleak wind to sing the national anthem. They're part of VSA Montana, an organization whose clients are diverse; some have autism, some have Down's syndrome, some have other developmental disabilities. VSA gives them all a chance to sing and dance and paint.

Dick towers in the choir's back row. When the director, Malcolm Lowe, tells them to begin, he mouths a couple of the words and then, almost inaudibly, repeats the syllables of one word over and over. It's not until the choir gets to the final line, "for the land of the free and the home of the brave," that he sings every word with gusto.

When he gets stuck on words, it's as though he's fallen into their sounds. When I ask him about his dad having been a CPA, he repeats the word "CPA" followed quietly by "APC, APC, APC." When he says "subway," he reconfigures the syllables into "I-de-sub, i-de-sub, i-de-sub," as though he's puzzling out an anagram.

Alayne Dolson, the director of VSA Montana and pianist for the choir, says that it takes a while for Dick to learn lyrics, but when he does, he's able to sing beautiful solos. (For his upcoming show at the VSA Montana Cabaret on May 19, he'll sing a solo for "Wandrin' Star" from Paint Your Wagon.)

"It takes repetition for him to remember all the words," she says. "You know that he's listening, you know that he's processing, but there are other sound-related things going on in his head that make it hard to focus."

click to enlarge On weekends, Swanson heads out at very specific times to observe and photograph his favorite shadows. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • On weekends, Swanson heads out at very specific times to observe and photograph his favorite shadows.

Over the years, he's built up a repertoire of conversation topics. When Dolson first met him he only wanted to talk about the seasons and holidays. He got distracted if you wished him a merry Christmas before he got a chance to say it first. Now he talks about many things, including music. He tells Dolson that when he was little he heard a piece of music that made him cry because it was so beautiful, but that he would never let his mother see him cry because she would think he was sad.

"People often think that those with autism don't have empathy," she says to me. "But they just have different ways of expressing. They're acutely aware of disappointing people."

Dick also takes dance class. Two years ago Dolson saw him skip for the first time. This year, she saw him jump in the air. For Dick, it was about trusting that nothing bad would happen if both his feet left the ground at the same time.

He has a treatment staff at ORI. One of them is with him at all times when he's at home, where he also lives with a roommate. The staff have rules: Don't touch people's hair. Don't tease or taunt your peers. Don't raise your voice. No physical intimidation. No ignoring staff requests. If he follows the rules, he can get up to 13 points a day, which can lead to more freedoms. If he gets ready for work on time, he gets a diet pop. The idea is to teach him to be independent, but the structure is also limiting. If he wants to go somewhere—to look at a shadow, or get ice cream—he needs to have a staff person accompany him. That's hard for him to accept. "I do not like being treated as a child," he says.

He likes to talk about breaking rules. Riding in a car, he might tell you to take a left where a sign says no left turn simply because he wants to see what will happen. He once tried to get into the Western Montana Fair without paying but was told it would be unfair to the people who had paid. That was 12 years ago, and he still brings it up, often.

Dick might obsess about rules because they seem arbitrary. He was getting ready to run in a Special Olympics race once and turned around at the starting line to face the other way. When he was asked to face in the same direction as the other runners, he pointed out that it would be an equal distance in either direction.

People who enforce rules fascinate him. Every Halloween he dresses up as a policeman, and he talks to city police whenever he gets the chance. He tells me that he once dreamt that he was back in Helena, trying to talk to a cop who said, "Not now. I'm busy with another man." He thought the cop was angry at him and awoke relieved that he was in his bedroom in Missoula.

As for goals, he doesn't aspire to astound the world with his voice or his memory. Someday, he says, he wants to walk to the Kiwanis annual pancake breakfast by himself.

•••

Jen Hoyle, one of the ORI staffers who works with Dick, was sitting on his porch with him on a recent afternoon. "What do you think people should know about you?" she asked.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"If I am tall, would I be able to touch the ceiling?" he said.

"Can you?" she asked.

He stood and touched the ceiling of his porch. "I guess I can," he said.

"What are your hopes and dreams?" she asked.

"Hopes and dreams?" he repeated.

"What's one of your goals?"

"To go to New York City. Be living on Eastern Daylight Time."

"What would you do there?"

"Ride the subway. Visit the NYPD."

"Did you ever talk to your parents about being different?"

"Yes."

"What did they say?"

"That I tap things."

"How did you feel about being different from other kids?"

"I was jealous of them."

"How do you want people to treat you?"

"With respect."

"Do you feel like people treat you with respect now?"

"Yes."

"What do you want people to know about autism?"

He paused. "About autism?"

"Is that a hard question?"

"Yes."

•••

Every weekend Dick hunts shadows.

In the late 1990s, I went with him one day to look at a shadow on the side of the Bee Hive, an assisted-living home on Reserve Street. I ask now if he remembers it. Yes, he says, and describes the building and the way the shadow fell on it. I have no idea if he's right because I certainly can't remember the shape of one shadow I saw more than a decade ago.

Sometimes he photographs the shadows. He has a few favorites these days: near Ole's on Russell Street at 6:25 p.m. That shadow is a straight line that parallels the green vinyl siding.

click to enlarge Swanson shot this self-portrait. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DICK SWANSON
  • Photo courtesy of Dick Swanson
  • Swanson shot this self-portrait.

There's another one he likes at the ORI woodshop. We must leave his house at precisely 1:15 p.m. to drive there in time to see it jutting from a wall onto a concrete ramp. We're late one day, though, and he gets irritated, bellowing "Turn green, red light!' at the intersection of Mount and Russell. When we arrive, he peers at the diminishing shadow.

Dick keeps close track of time, as though he's trying to hold onto it. He stares at his wristwatch waiting for it to hit 1:32 p.m., when the sun will be directly overhead. When 1:32 has come and gone, he keeps looking at his watch. He's waiting now for 1:55.

"What happens at 1:55?" I ask.

"At 1:55 I say, 'It's just about 3 in Chicago,'" he says. "'Just about 3 in New Orleans.'"

On a recent May day, he greeted his neighbors, a man and his son. He wanted to wish the man's wife a happy Mother's Day a day early, but she wasn't there.

The next day I went with him to the Missoula Cemetery, where his mom is buried. He visits Betty's grave every year on Mother's Day. He approached it alone, as he preferred, and stood there with his fingers pressed against her nameplate. He turned to walk away but then he turned back and touched her name, and did that again and again.

Dick Swanson performs with a choir for the VSA Montana Cabaret and silent auction at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Thursday, May 19, at 7 PM. Doors open at 6 PM. Free with a donation of toiletries or food for the Food Bank.

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