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Dick Swanson's secret powers

The ordinary life of an extraordinary man

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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.

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.

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.

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