Wynston Browne is non-speaking autistic.
A lesser known government scale (LON) labels him 8 out of 8*.
For 15 years he’s grown up beneath the weighted shroud of these diagnoses. Everyone, including his family and Elisa Feinman, his behavioral therapist for 12 years and communication partner this past year, knew he would never achieve scholastic success above third grade, changes in his routine triggered outbursts, and his interests and socialization would be finite.
Yet every time Wynston had a tantrum, Elisa got a nagging feeling. “When he acted out it seemed out of frustration,” she recalls. Yet in cases like Wynston’s, when optimism is welcomed it often invites its feral companion, disappointment. Best to keep any strands of hope out of harm’s way.
Then one day last year a client of Wynston’s father, David, sent him a video of Dan Bergmann. Dan is a young man burdened with the same condition as Wynston. Yet in a video filmed in 2020, Dan is an eloquent Harvard University Extension graduate with a passion for art.
He can’t talk, but at 12 he was taught how to “speak” by pointing at large letters on a board, graduating to smaller letters printed on a piece of laminated paper, then learning how to tap the letters on a touch-to-text computer that speaks for him.
According to Wynston’s mother, Lynda, “His mannerisms were similar [to Dan’s] and we thought there’s absolutely no reason why he can’t do this.”
After hours of training this past winter, Lynda and Elisa helped Wynston find his voice.
I meet Wynston, Elisa, and Lynda on Labor Day.
After introductions, I sit at a small table while he and Elisa, with her alphabet card, is on plastic chairs next to me. This is his first “formal” interview and no one knows how it will go. There are a lifetime of questions he's never been asked, and a lifetime of information no one, not even his family, yet knows about him.
WLM: Wynston, how do you feel that you can communicate?
Wynston: I feel extremely grateful that people finally understand me and that they know that I am smart.
WLM: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Wynston: I want to be a neuroscientist.
Wynston: I want to help people like me to communicate.
His responses are swift, his sentences complete and grammatically correct. Sometimes he requires help maintaining focus, but most often he leans forward and points, sounding out each letter. Elisa states each word, then tells me the completed answer.
WLM: How long have you wanted to be a neuroscientist?
Wynston: After I learned how to spell.
His sister, Sevie, sitting nearby, gleefully chimes in, “Wynston!! That’s not what you used to want to do!”
Curiosity got me:
WLM: Before you learned how to spell what did you want to do?
Wynston: I wanted to be a basketball player for the Special Olympics.
WLM: Where do you want to go to college?
Wynston: University of Michigan.
At this, Sevie again interjects, “Why do you want to go UMich instead of the best little college in the woods?” She wants him to follow her lead and attend Dartmouth.
Wynston: Because it seems like a fun school rah-rah a party school.
At this, everyone laughs. Elisa asks Wynston to focus (and sit up straighter).
WLM: How do you know so much?
Wynston: I’m a good listener and I am aware of everything…
He stops and affectionately tucks his head beneath Elisa’s chin. “Finish your thought, please, don’t flirt with me!” She replies.
Wynston: …that is happening all around me.
WLM: Before people knew you were smart, they read you first grade books. How did that make you feel?
Wynston: It made me feel frustrated and stupid.
Lynda gasps slightly. Elisa’s face reddens and she struggles to brush off her emotion.
This is not just a kid learning to communicate; this is an insightful person who spent years inside of his head, thinking and educating himself while the world assumed he couldn’t. This is a person whose constant need for supervision belied his enormous potential.
There’s also a learning curve for the people around him, to understand that this boy who they knew had an intellectually disability simply does not. In fact, he’s quite bright.
WLM: Can you finish this sentence? “I am Winston…”
Wynston: I am a boy who deserves to be treated like everyone else.
WLM: What was the most frustrating thing for you growing up, before you could communicate?
Wynston: I felt left out of activities.
WLM: What’s the best part about what you’re able to do now?
Wynston: I feel like I can do anything
WLM: What are your goals now? Like, in a year?
Wynston: I want to educate people what it’s like to have autism.
WLM: How will you do that?
Wynston: Explain how I see things differently from them and that it’s okay we are all different.
He’s getting tired and restless. I ask him if I can ask one more question.
WLM: Can you give an example of how you see things differently?
Wynston: I see things in pictures very quickly.
Elisa wraps it up, “Did you enjoy this interview?”
“Are you excited it’ll be in a magazine?”
"What do you want to say to her?”
Wynston, can you answer one more question? I ask. Can I send questions?
“Absolutely. I would like that very much."
He eagerly reaches for Lynda’s iPhone. But first, he requires a kiss.“We’re always kissing him!” Lynda exclaims. Elisa laughs, “I was always rewarding him with kisses so now he expects them all the time.”
Though instruction began - slowly - this past winter, Wynston’s communication accelerated in the past two months.
They show me his biology notebooks - Elisa’s guiding him through online Kahn classes and he’s getting a 93% in this class. He’s mastering algebra, his notebook testament to his effort. (Wynston can’t write so she pens his notes.)
It’s time to leave. I turn to Wynston who is seated at the table scrolling through his mom’s iPhone. “Wynston, thank you and it was wonderful to meet you.”
He doesn’t look up, too engrossed in the phone to pay attention. Just like any other 15 year old boy.