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Q&A with David Patten, Author of “Dummy: A Memoir”, Part 1
by David Patten



Editor's note from Sherri Carter: I found David's Q&A very insightful to the potential of all of us, no matter what label we may, or may not, have. Nurture what is possible!

David's 1st Grade Class Spent in the Hall

Born to well-educated parents in Chicago as an autism-spectrum child, David Patten was repetitively misdiagnosed in the 1950’s, a time when autism was little understood. After a youth of a severe disorientation and isolation, the seriously dyslexic Patten made a living dealing drugs and engaging in other street-level enterprises. In his twenties he discovered his native genius in abstract conceptual mathematics which led him to a successful career as a businessman who worked debugging computer systems for major corporations and American military installations.

David’s deep sensitivity and insight gave him the capacity not only to maintain meaningful and affectionate human relationships, but enabled him to observe that his desperation and limitations need not define who he was. It was this understanding that eventually allowed him to accept his life and move beyond his identification with his human personality. Today he is the father of two grown, productive and happy children. He lives with his wife of 30 years, a physician, in Hawaii.

If you cannot really read or write how did you write this book?

There is a lot of detail about this at the beginning of the book because I thought I would be asked this question, but essentially the process took about 7 years. To create the original manuscript I started writing a few words and then would have the computer read them back to me. When I had a manuscript of about 700 hundred pages and had decided to make this deeply personal work public, I decided to take it to a writer to see if I could get some help. In addition to the manuscript, the ghostwriter conducted over 20 hours of interviews and from both of these resources he created a structural map. The interviews, transcribed into text, and scenes already written, were distilled, edited, and developed into initial chapters of the present book. Each chapter underwent a series of revisions. I would listen to each draft of each chapter on a transcribing machine that translates written text into spoken words. Then we would go through each chapter in great depth and detail. We would have lengthy discussions where I would articulate the nuances of the experiences, perspectives, and insights that occurred in each key moment and phase of my early life. And through this process, which happened over and over again, Dummy was brought into existence.

Is everything in it true?

Yes, everything in it is as true as I knew how to make it. I went into writing this being honest with myself so it is more like a confession of my worst traits. Factually, I tried to get as much input from others who were there at the time, so this book has been verified by those involved. It was my community really who helped to fill out some of the detail.

You say you had cognitive issues. What exactly were they?

I had a lot of tests and my issues have been explained to me mostly in technical terms, but one of the issues with identifying the problem was that it was a moving target.

It seemed like I would learn something and then I would regress.  I could write and remember certain words, some of the time and then not other times. So things were never consistent.

I believe I had limited linear memory—words, people’s names, statistics, hierarchy, dates and specifics about situations were difficult for me to recall. It seems my memory did not organize around specific milestones. My mind worked more like a free flow of impressions. I also tended to experience things through emotions or had a feeling sense of an experience or impression and that is how I would remember. For example, I could not remember a person’s name, but I could remember the pattern of speech that they had…the tonal quality of their voice and by this, remember that person. My memory is organized in a relational map or contexts so if I ran into someone I knew well; in different than normal place or context, I might not remember them.

Among my autistic tendencies were:


David (10 years old) and his friend Robert traveling around Chicago by Subway

* I did not speak until I was 4 years old
   * I did not like to be touched
   * Involuntary noises and movements (Tourette)
   * Repetitive nervous or self-consoling habits like hair pulling and tapping
   * I could not look into people’s eyes
   * Could not make believe play
   * Could not really read or write –Dyslexia
   * Does not understand what is socially appropriate. Could not read social situations and cues
   * Quantitative impairment
   * Body posture
   * Inability to prioritize
   * Intensity of focus

How were they diagnosed?

I was sick at birth and my mother had some awareness or sense, as mothers do, that I might have issues. My mother was one of very few child psychologists around at the time so she tested me fairly early in life, around the age of 6. I was failing in class, but she did not want me to get diagnosed or officially tested inside the school system because she did not want me to be tracked or categorized. So instead she got me a tutor. Psychiatrists diagnosed me outside of the school system and came up with all kinds of diagnoses including — retarded, autistic, severely dyslexic. The school officially tested me, I believe, in second grade.

Do you still have these issues?

I still have some cognitive issues but they do not present themselves in the same way as they did when I was younger. They are not as severe.

How did you work around the issues you had and live a fairly normal life?

Technology has been really useful; in a way it has been my memory. I can store information on my computers or phone and then retrieve it. I use a program that converts text into speech and it reads me emails or documents that come in. Not always is the communication accurate, but it is really helpful. I have also limited my world so I do not have to engage in things where my skill set is not adaptable.

Were you ever diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum?

Since my mother did not want me diagnosed officially, I was unofficially diagnosed as a kid. I had the classic symptoms — non verbal until 4, outbursts, banging my head, hiding in a place that would put pressure on my physical body (under my mattress,) fits when they tried to put clothes on me…etc. Autism is a childhood condition; an adult cannot get this diagnosis so officially I have not been diagnosed. I am also severely dyslexic and these days they are including this symptom in the spectrum as well.

When you got labeled as being a certain way…what kind of impact did these ideas about who you were have on you?

My mom tried very hard for this not to happen. She repeated over and over again that these labels do not mean anything. I knew I was different at a young age, thinking I came from a different planet. I did not have the filters…I felt everything. I could not shut out what was around me sensorially or emotionally.

Because I was different, I felt worthless and alienated. I wondered if there was any place to fit in the world since there was no place for me in the school system. I did not see how I could be included in the community – education, job, family or future. I was both alienated from the present moment and the future. I actually had NO idea what my future was going to be…and had to be with the absolute discomfort of NOT KNOWING…or even being able to pretend that I knew. The question I was forced to confront was  — what is the world or the circumstances of my life telling me I need to be? What could I do that the world needed? And how should I act that the world would accept?

I thought the world had an innate intelligence and I was just missing the point.   It seemed that I had no choices and was making no choices. I had to worry about the future while all other kids were living in the present. They had the freedom to be careless, not take anything seriously. I had an understanding that all of my current actions had implications on my future so every moment was to be taken seriously. It seemed I was being prepared for a life I did not want to live.

You have said that you were overwhelmed by stimuli, how did this affect your relationship to the world around you?

David's brother Neil (on horse), his dad, and David in 1959

When I was very young I tried to get control of the stimuli by shutting off the outside influences best I could. I would find things that were stable, things that did not surprise me by changing each moment.  I could count on math and logic…something I was good at, because those things were predictable. I needed to have control and some expectation of pattern. I avoided any situation that might have an outcome that I could not predetermine with some regularity. This seemed to calm my system.

As a teenager I grew to understand that intimacy was going to help keep me alive. If I could create a relationship with someone that I trusted and if there was a bond, then that person could help to manage my reactions. By this I mean, I could experience the world through their eyes and react to outside input based on their reactions. I knew to be afraid if they were afraid or calm if they were. Alone I could not regulate the overwhelm and daily life could lead to an escalation of anxiety. In an anxious state, situations of gray became black and white…no reaction at all or an over reaction. Real and trustworthy human relationships could help me to regulate my experiences and reactions and somehow this stabilized me.

How did you find your gifts? And what are they?

I had an advantage. I knew that I did not know what I was doing so I walked into every situation ignorant. This gave me freedom to be wrong, but also the capacity to listen to see if I could understand something. Others could make assumptions, which could lead them down the wrong path. Since I knew nothing I could only ask questions unhampered by assumptions, and listen to the answers.

I have always had conceptual capacity and an innate sense of reason. I had a way to take systems apart in my head and put them back together.  I could understand relationships and how all the parts related to the whole and each other. From this I was able to use my capacity for logic to learn troubleshooting. The beginner’s mind (knowing that I knew nothing) was very useful, for I would start from an open place and begin to ask questions. Being able to isolate what I did not understand gave me a thread to follow to find out what was not working.

In terms of my education, I was able to go to college because I was labeled “legally handicapped” and the government paid to have all my assignments and books read and recorded. This is how I got technical training and an Associates Degree in digital electronics in 1980.

How did you find work?

I applied to jobs through the school I attended and in the interviews was asked questions…not tested. So I got my first job this way, as a bench technician at a microwave electronics company.



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About the Author

A child in the 1950s, David Patten was labeled retarded, lazy, stupid-a dummy. Isolated by an autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia, David slipped into the dark underbelly of American life, spending time in a mental institution, a violent inner-city school for troubled youth, and an experimental home for schizophrenics. David’s remarkable journey from brokenness to a truly successful, awakened life offers an inspiring vision of our human potential.  His story of gradually transforming disabilities into skills, hopelessness into freedom is a testament to the power of the human spirit. For more information, please visit www.dummyamemoir.com, or purchase Dummy: A Memoir at amazon.com.




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