On Thursday Nov. 3rd my family and I attended a most heartening event. The Mayor of Salt Lake City proclaimed Nov. 3, 2011, to be Kim Peek Day. Kim Peek is the man who inspired the screenwriter, Barry Morrow, to write an Oscar winning movie, Rain Man.
Most people have never heard of Kim Peek, but if you had you would never forget him. At his birth, his head was 1/3 times as large as a normal sized head. His eyes were closed and he was diagnosed as severely retarded. At three years old his parents noticed that he appeared to be reading books. Not only was he reading them, but he read them with tremendous speed and 100% comprehension. His vocabulary matched that of his parents.
Upon further testing, scientists discovered that he read the left side of the page with his left eye and the right side with his right eye, simultaneously with complete retention. He read over twelve thousand books and six thousand maps with perfect recall and understanding. He is known as a “megasavant.” Kim worked for many years with NASA in their Quantum Intelligence Program as their model for super-intelligence. With the knowledge they gathered from his “perfect brain,” it is thought they have the ability to solve many complex problems likely to be encountered in the future.
Although Kim possessed this unbelievable intelligence, he had trouble with simple tasks we take for granted. A friend of his said that while most of us are able to figure out a solution to our hunger in the morning, Kim would realize he was hungry, recognize the spoon, the bowl and the cereal, but would not know what to do to feed himself.
Although, Kim was not autistic, Barry was so taken with him that he knew he had to create a movie about this amazing megasavant with debilitating social skills.
At the award ceremony the other night, Barry talked about the film screening of the movie, years earlier. He said that throughout the movie, Kim, who sat next to him, kept his eyes on the floor. When later questioned about the movie, Kim knew everything about every scene. Barry was astounded and asked how he knew so much even though he wasn't watching. To which Kim responded, “Barry I saw the movie with my heart.” It was at this moment when not only I but a whole room full of people cried.
Barry had given his Oscar for Rain Man to Kim, with the condition that he would use it to develop awareness of mental disabilities and children with special needs. Kim carried it with him on countless speaking engagements around the world, accompanied by his father. Children loved to ask Kim obscure questions, to which he always knew the answer. Because of this push from Barry, Kim was able to speak to people in a more relaxed manner and emerge from his shell against social contact. Kim found a confidence that he had never felt before.
For someone who never graduated from high school, Kim excelled at helping many people for the first time in his life, making himself and others extremely happy. His father, being his best friend, accompanied Kim everywhere he went. Kim used to say that they “shared the same shadow.” His father attended the awards ceremony the other night and Barry said to him and the audience, “You have raised the bar for fathers everywhere.” Cue more tears.
It is said that this Oscar has been held roughly 450,000 times. It now has a permanent home in Salt Lake City, where Kim lived. Kim Peek died in 2009 of a heart attack. He was 58 years old.
The Kim Peek Award for Disability will be given annually to honor someone who has helped to improve the public's understanding of disability in society. Nov.3, 2011, the award was presented to Temple Grandin for her tremendous work in autism advocacy and animal welfare movements.
Temple was born in 1947 and diagnosed with autism. At three years old, doctors advised her mother to institutionalize her. They said she would never speak. But Temple's mother would not give up. She pushed for her daughter to be everything she could be. As Temple said last week, “My mother made me stretch beyond what anyone thought I was capable of doing. I am so grateful to her for her persistence. Because of her, I am where I am today.” This was another tearful moment for me, as I thought of my own struggles with my daughter who has Asperger's syndrome (one form of autism).
Temple received her Ph.D in Animal Science in 1989. She is the designer of livestock handling facilities that are now located in the United States (half or more of our meat comes from humane stockyards of her design), Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. Her curved chute and race systems are used worldwide, while her writings on animal behavior have helped people to reduce stress on their animals during handling in countless places.
During her lecture, Temple talked about how she is primarily a visual learner, with words being her second language. She attributes her success with animals in part to her ability to recall details. She compares her memory to a full-length movie that can be replayed at will. It was because of this insight that she was able to understand the minds of cattle, ultimately designing humane, animal-handling equipment. She is the author of six books and over 400 articles. She has been featured in the best known magazines, spoken on countless talk shows and last year was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people. The movie titled, Temple Grandin, staring Claire Danes, is exceptional in every way.
Temple observes, “I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.” One of her book titles is Animals Make Us Human.
When Temple speaks to audiences about autism, they hang on her every word. She knows firsthand what it is like to grow up with a disability. She speaks candidly with parents and youth alike, reinforcing the premise that it doesn't matter how bright you are or what advantages you may or may not have. Everyone has a purpose and what matters is that whatever you choose to do in life, do it with passion. This is the only way you will succeed.
I thought a lot about my daughter, Erin, that night. I thought about her struggles, the taunting of the classmates that she had to endure, her limitations in dealing with many mechanical items, her difficulties in social situations. I thought about the fact that she is now working with learning disabled four and five year old children, as a volunteer aid. She seems to have found her niche in much the same way that Kim and Temple did. Because of her disabilities she is better equipped to help these children with theirs. I think she finally feels that she is making a difference. She now comes home happy, knowing that she might have helped one little kid to recognize the letter “A.” This is huge. It is the essence of re-defining one's life for the purpose of helping others. Her passion is evident when she gets up to catch an early bus to school, rain, snow, or shine.
As if the universe wanted a fitting ending for this article, I received an email this morning from the teacher Erin works with, which I quote in part:
“Erin has been a wonderful addition to our classroom. She has… great early childhood skills and knowledge of how to work with young children… My staff and I really appreciate her willingness… to stay all morning to help. She is very observant and has found ways to help without being asked. Amy and I were so tickled when the other day we noticed that Erin had observed how we re-organize our large group for the afternoon class and did the job before we got to it. She had everything perfectly in place and now takes care of that task for us every day.”
What more as a mother could I possibly ask for?
© Christine Geery 2011