Dick Swanson's secret powers 

The ordinary life of an extraordinary man

Page 2 of 3

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.

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