By Maziar Azizi
The rolling green lush of Aldrich Park at the center of the UC Irvine campus is a cozy, sun-spotted ideal center for an American university. Bathed year-round by the warm California light, it is an eternal summer camp with winding paths and crude wooden steps that lead the mind to cabins, bunk beds, and the freedom a child constructs away from parental supervision. An inoffensive wind gusts and trumps noise from the surroundings, sheltering the natural from the manmade. The din of boba tea fundraisers and spectral industrial buildings on surroundings roads makes no intrusion here.
Two miles down the road, Theo Kroll – a twenty year-old junior at UCI – paces among the cacti and other native plants at the school arboretum, muttering to them aloud. He describes them scientifically, pointing out the various families – cactaceae, agavaceae, zamiaceae, and orchidaceae. Many bloom into striking color while others eschew aesthetics for a dry, monochromatic appearance that will ensure their survival in the desert sun. The arboretum is set on a hill with a pastoral view of surrounding mountains, the nearby wetlands preserve, and the urban architecture of downtown Irvine. Theo is unkempt, a baggy t-shirt and worn cargo shorts complementing a frazzle of hair that has enjoyed months of unchecked growth. For the moment he works his way through the rows of pots in the saran house, named for the black mesh netting set on its structure of wooden planks, which provides shade for the plants inside but looks nothing like plastic wrap. Eventually he wrestles out a hose from the corner and waters the specimen in need, stopping only to loudly greet a friend from high school he has lost touch with. Content with his work inside; Theo meticulously coils the hose, collects his personal garden shears, and locks the door to the saran house. He moves outside to deliver the same care to plants set on tables and basking in full sunlight. He will circulate for hours, as he does every week, indulging his passion for botany. That he is here for independent study credit and working towards a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology is an afterthought, an interest in the natural world consumes Theo’s life.
I first met Theo leaving his afternoon organic chemistry lecture on the campus road that circles Aldrich Park. His mother is an English professor at the school, as was his late father. He has lived in University Hills, a housing community for the school’s professors a short walk away, since age three – so I let him find a quiet a spot for our interview. He takes us to the tranquil heart of the park, where seats have been carved out of a large rock by a grapefruit tree. He provides me a remarkably painstaking year-by-year narrative of his life, filling in more full names and exact dates than could possibly be relevant. Other peculiarities emerge. For the entirety of the interview, he jams a long wooden branch into the dirt, completely soiling my notes. Later, despite my assurances to keep talking, he halts the conversation to preserve the clarity of my tape recording when chatting passersby come into earshot. As an understandable outgrowth of his passion for nature, he attempted to stop another student from picking fruit from the tree, explaining that it had not descended far enough and was therefore unripe. When the student plucked it anyway and deemed it acceptable, Theo harbored no pride and ceded that it may have been ripe after all.
His intense passion for biology and atypical behavior is rooted in a condition called Asperger’s syndrome. The disorder lies in the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum and is characterized by a focus on inanimate systems rather than people with a profound deficit in social skills, often resulting in singular dedication to those systems. People on the autism spectrum, numbering one in 110 children, display a penchant for details and enhanced cognitive ability like the toothpick-counting savant portrayed by Dustin Hoffmann in Rain Man. While it is possible Asperger’s lifestyle in the negative light of disability, many advocates for the condition point to the enhanced brainpower and extreme focus as a benefit to society. In this vein, Albert Einstein and Andy Warhol have been posthumously diagnosed with the syndrome.
A key distinction between full-on autism and Asperger’s syndrome is the former’s marked delay in speech and other fundamental faculties. Theo vindicates himself as an ‘Aspie’ when near plants, apt to rattle off the full Latin classification of everything in sight. But his mother is quick to assure me he is no taxonomist simply exercising an elephantine memory. He is able to engage in deeper analytical scientific discourse with his grandfather – a prominent geologist and geochemist at Cal Tech, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and instructor of field geology to the astronauts of the Apollo missions.
Ongoing budget cuts to public education have left Laura Lyons, Theo’s advisor, as the lone staff member of the arboretum. Theo’s enthusiasm and expertise have enabled him to undertake responsibilities she previously shared with staff gardeners. He is grateful for the immersion in the field that he loves, and distraction from the organic chemistry class he is currently failing. Lyons is grateful for the extra pair of eyes and understands his condition, herself having a sister with Asperger’s syndrome. She describes much of scientific academia as solitary, and knows that Theo can better cope with social interaction in this setting.
Following expulsion from preschool, Theo was originally diagnosed with ADHD and continued to be an outcast in various specialized schools, until he was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age eight. He entered mainstream education by the end of elementary school and had a tumultuous experience through most of junior high, enduring the cruelty of classmates with whom he had little idea of how to interact. The antipsychotic drug Risperdal caused Theo to gain weight, which in turn caused an early onset of puberty. Theo’s condition, combined with the hormonal impulses of adolescence, led him to deduce that sexually-themed outbursts were his ticket to acceptance by other children. He would lock onto phrases, and goaded by others, would continuously chant mantras like “hump the rump” and “rape the ape.” He claims to have called a girl “whore” in this same embarrassingly outspoken manner for the entirety of seventh grade. His mother would arrive at school to pick him up and see Theo standing by himself, talking a mile-a-minute, and flapping his arms like a bird. Theo’s isolation broke her heart, but his life would improve.
He cites a realization during the summer before eighth grade as the catalyst for change. He suddenly made the connection between his peculiar misbehavior and the massive harassment he faced at school. This self-described “brilliant idea” took hold in his mind and he made acquaintances out of former enemies and the school environment more bearable for himself. While college life allows Theo to go about his business relatively unnoticed compared to the enclosed scrutiny of grade school, his existence is still beset with misfortune. People with Asperger’s are marked by high sensitivity, and just as Theo recoils from loud music and spicy food, the death of his father in his first year at UCI hit especially hard. Theo watched him wither away from a vital and accomplished existence, felled by a degenerative disease in his peripheral nervous system. The tragedy led him to take time off from school and to a therapeutic four thousand dollar shopping spree – for exotic plants.
Theo, an only child whose parents divorced before the family moved to California, shares his home with a variety of pets – a dog, two snakes, and assorted rodents repurposed from refuse snake food. Completing the wild feel of the house is Theo’s massive collection of plants, numbering over two hundred. He labors for hours each day to care for and admire them. The collection lines the entire side of his house and the backyard patio, and includes valuable rare plants. He refers to time spent with the plants as playing, as peers would play video games, sports, or music. While he certainly strives for contact with others, Theo is most content when engrossed in his plant collection or related reference material. Textbooks, field guides, and back issues of National Geographic fill his cluttered cubby of a room to capacity.
In addition to the veritable biology lab surrounding him, Theo’s extended family form a support system that he has depended on his entire life. His grandmother has taken him on excursions to Alaska and the Galapagos Islands that slake his thirst for the natural world and his aunts, uncles, and cousins have always offered their unwavering support as he struggled to create a normal social life. For all the obvious differences Theo has, it is not difficult to see him as his own “particular version,” as his mother calls him when comparing him to their family of eccentric academics.
His mother says that he prefers his largely solitary lifestyle . “A certain amount of contact is good, but he isn’t lonely in the way another child might be lonely. He loves people, but he likes doing his own thing,” she insists. Theo is relatively self-sufficient and aware of his condition, able to discuss his troubled past and catch himself scolding me too harshly when I block the light he needs to photograph an orchid. Still, like any person with Asperger’s, he understands and abides by rules to an idiosyncratic fault – hence his steadfast protection of my recording our interview.
Theo is in an ideal environment. Liberal California and the university setting are tolerant to his eccentricities, and the region’s climate agrees with his inclination to immerse himself in nature year round. The practical concern of transporting his collection of flora and fauna to a college dormitory aside, Theo is not ready to live on his own. He will advance to living independently on his own time and his mother will be there to help, but for now he is happy living his own version of a normal life.
2x 1 hour interviews with Theo
2x 1 hour observations of Theo with plants
40 minute interview with mother
10 minute interview with advisor Laura Lyons
Autism's First Child By JOHN DONVAN AND CAREN ZUCKER; Atlantic Monthly Oct. 2010
Is Asperger Syndrome Necessarily Viewed as a Disability? By Simon Baron-Cohen. FOCUS ON AUTISM AND OTHER DEVELOPMENTAL DISABILITIES VOLUME 17, NUMBER 3, FALL 2002 PAGES 186–191.
"Children with Asperger's: A 21st Century Brain Trust." BusinessWeek Online (2008): 23. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.
“Albert Einstein, Andy Kaufman, and Andy Warhol: The Controversial Disorder They May Have Shared.” Claudia Rowe – Biography Magazine Dec. 2003.