Norm Ledgin Interview
An interview with Norm Ledgin conducted by Karen Simmons, July 1, 2002
Bio: Norm Ledgin is a professional safety educator and in the newspaper publishing business for fifteen years. In 1984 he and his wife Marsha turned to fulltime parenting, being the parent of a young man diagnosed with Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome. In his latest book, Aspergerâ€™s and Self Esteem, Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models, Norm relies on history to present a hopeful attitude about Aspergerâ€™s peopleâ€™s future prospects. He makes his home in Oxford Township, Kansas with his wife and two sons.
An Interview with Norm Ledgin, author â€œDiagnosing Jeffersonâ€ and newly released â€œAspergerâ€™s and Self Esteem, Insight Through Famous Role Models.
Karen: Iâ€™ve reviewed your first book, Diagnosing Jefferson as well as your recent book, â€œAspergerâ€™s and Self Esteem, Insight Through Famous Role Models. What is your background and area of expertise, Norm?
Norm: Iâ€™m a political journalist (Litt. B. in Journalism, M.A. in Political Science). I trashed my career inadvertently while still at Rutgers University-by co-chairing a Washington restaurant â€œsit-inâ€ (before they were called â€œsit-insâ€) in 1948, by joining a black fraternity in 1949, and by giving my name as an American sponsor of the Stockholm Peace Appeal (urging the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to renounce a nuclear arms race) in 1950.
These â€œmisstepsâ€-the last of which was condemned broadly by the House Un-American Activities Committee-earned me a blacklisting, so I never worked for the â€œbetterâ€ newspapers. I then emigrated to such Third World places as Louisiana and Kansas to settle for unspectacular work (promoting traffic safety) in order to feed my family.
The other part of my â€œexpertiseâ€ was having a son diagnosed with Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome when he was twelve in 1996 and subsequently reading everything I could find on the subject.
Karen: Very interesting, Norm. I believe I was at a few â€œsit-inâ€™s myself. What made you come up with the idea of writing about famous role models?
Norm: While reading biographies and works of Thomas Jefferson, which I had been doing since the late 1940s, I found what appeared to be coincidences between my sonâ€™s behavior and Jeffersonâ€™s. When I counted twenty similarities in their shared idiosyncrasies, I was impressed. When I counted fifty, I decided to write Diagnosing Jefferson. Later I realized there were other achievers in history with whom to match modern diagnostic criteria for Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome. That led to my lecturing on the subject of â€œrole modelsâ€ and, subsequently, writing Aspergerâ€™s and Self-Esteem.
Karen: How did you decide which role models to include?
Norm: Suspicion was my main drive toward most of the role models. I read their biographies, concentrating mainly on their childhood through teen years. (By the way, you only find objective biographies of people after theyâ€™ve died.) Temple Grandin mentioned a few of them in her 1995 book, Thinking in Pictures.
I based my suspicions on famous achieversâ€™ early aloofness in social situations, nonverbal issues such as awkwardness, their fixations, and publicly-perceived â€œimpairmentsâ€ in their careers or other social relationships (recognizing they might never have thought of their decisions as reflecting impairment at all).
I rejected a number of people Iâ€™d suspected of being on the autism/Aspergerâ€™s continuum because I found in them signs of other conditions, such as manic-depression or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.
Karen: Where did you go to obtain information about these role models, Norm?
Norm: I scoured the biography shelves at the public library, plus magazine pieces and Internet articles. If there was even a smidgin of information about early childhood and reliable descriptions running through the teen years of the selected historical celebrities, any person with knowledge of Aspergerâ€™s might draw reasonable conclusions about whether they should be candidates for the autism/Aspergerâ€™s continuum.
The most difficult part of such an examination was to make a judgment about what the diagnostic criteria refer to as social or vocational â€œimpairment.â€ Thatâ€™s a negative term that a supposedly â€œimpairedâ€ person isnâ€™t always ready to accept, so I tried to see matters through the celebrityâ€™s eyes as well as societyâ€™s. For example, Madame Curie lived in relative poverty immediately following her discovery (of extracting radium from pitchblende) because she believed it would be wrong to profit personally from the results of scientific inquiry. Society in general doesnâ€™t understand such ethics, so it regards people like Marie Curie as somewhat cuckoo-definitely â€œimpaired.â€
Karen: What do other historians say about the book, the concept, the ideas?
Norm: Most historians have avoided commenting because they donâ€™t know what to make of it. They would rather arrange facts revealed in dusty documents than try to get into the mental processes or labyrinths of reasoning those very facts reveal about their subjects. Only a few have examined their subjectsâ€™ possible motivations or personal anguish and have made stabs at guessing the root causes of what troubled their heroes or heroines.
Had modern historical biographers matched Thomas Jeffersonâ€™s idiosyncrasies with diagnostic criteria for Aspergerâ€™s instead of scratching their heads about his quirks, theyâ€™d have made the same discovery about Jefferson that I have. Supporting my conclusions about Jefferson in a logical and orderly manner was easier for me than finding someone with the guts and wherewithal to publish them.
Karen: Why werenâ€™t these individuals labeled in the first place with something?
Norm: They were labeled-as odd, eccentric, quirky, strange, even creepy-but those are the categorical judgments of a society generally unschooled in science. What we have learned in the past 58 years about autism-an evolving body of knowledge-has provided us tools by which to appreciate a few of the more dramatic facts of history.
For instance, why did the widower Jefferson sleep with his one-quarter-black sister-in-law (and house slave by inheritance) for 38 years and impregnate her eight times (such facts arising from scientific and historical studies)? Because skin-color differences didnâ€™t bother them when, at a critical point in both their lives, they discovered they were in love and couldnâ€™t care less how others viewed the situation. The â€œslave issueâ€ is less an issue when one learns what TJ tried to do about it at various stages of his long life (83 years).
Does that relationship put a new light on Thomas Jefferson or what? At once we have a man faithful to a commitment and who honored it despite its effect on his public image, who had a strong sense of family ties when selecting the one person who could meet his needs for trusting and loving, who despite throwing parties â€œfor showâ€ was at heart a loner-resisting intrusion into the privacy of his south wing suite at Monticello (of which Sally Hemings was caretaker), all these and more in the example of that relationship being hallmark characteristics of an adult with traits of Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome.
Karen: How do their descendants feel about making these claims?
Norm: Jefferson descendants in both family lines-those descended from the 10-year marriage and those from the 38-year â€œliaisonâ€-have not been offended, nor even very much surprised, by any of my dozens of Aspergerâ€™s-trait conclusions.
Realize, please, that high-functioning autistics are often very talented people. Family members appear to have turned that around into a syllogism, to wit: â€œMany of us who are descended from TJ are talented. Such talents often spring from high-functioning autism. Our family probably has a strain of autism running through it (and deep-down weâ€™ve had our suspicions of that).â€
Itâ€™s common knowledge that the Randolphs of Virginia, the family of TJâ€™s mother, were thought to have had more than their â€œshareâ€ of eccentrics, so no Jefferson genealogist is going to give anyone an argument.
As for other families mentioned in Aspergerâ€™s and Self-Esteem, the book hasnâ€™t been out long enough to bring a response.
Karen: Do you believe in synchronicity, meaning that coincidences are not merely coincidences, rather, events happen at a certain time for a reason?
Norm: If by synchronicity you mean that the Louisiana Purchase was a Jefferson achievement because, at that particular moment, Napoleon needed cash, then yes. If you mean the intervention of fate, or perhaps divine intervention, then no.
I could go on. The eccentric folksinger John Hartford wrote â€œGentle on My Mindâ€ (not a historic achievement but certainly a major musical one) because he was infatuated with Julie Christie after watching her in Dr. Zhivago. Had she not been in that film, there might not have been such a song.
Had Bela Bartok been a better pianist or more of a mainstream composer, he might not have seen possibilities for a career shift when hearing a peasant girl sing in a musical scale foreign to his trained ear. He might not have gone on to collect 6,000 folk melodies to share with the rest of us.
Had Carl Sagan been unimpressed with his religious upbringing and not seen in Moses and Jesus something special and even otherworldly, he might not have believed they were aliens, which belief led to his positing and promoting theories about the existence of life on other planets.
Karen: What impact did you hope to have with the book?
Norm: As has already happened-and it happened many times after publication of Diagnosing Jefferson two years ago-people have e-mailed or written me, or theyâ€™ve come up to me at meetings, commenting how my conclusions have turned their childrenâ€™s lives around toward a more positive outlook.
My son Fred was among the first to read it, and he told Tony Attwood that it made him realize he could be successful despite his condition.
Thatâ€™s all I had ever hoped for.
Karen: Thank you for your time, Norm, youâ€™ve are incredibly insightful and inspirational.