Daniel J Vance

Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for this column, but few have had such intriguing and gripping stories as 66-year-old Ron Davis of Burlingame, California. He is the founder of Davis Dyslexia Association International and a lightning rod for people opposing his controversial methods.

But first, his background: In the ’40s, doctors diagnosed him with Kanner’s syndrome, which is a form of autism that, in part, negatively affects verbal and nonverbal communication, social interaction, and creative or imaginative play.

“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to hide it,” said Davis in a telephone interview. “At 12, I was given the label ‘uneducatable mental retardation’. I was treated badly in school. When the kids teased me, if he could catch them, my older brother would fight them.”

He wasn’t able to read and could barely talk. However, when he was in fourth grade, his teacher suddenly realized Davis could do complicated arithmetic. So the teacher began tutoring him. One day, the teacher saw Davis’ mother in the school hallway and asked her to watch Davis doing complicated math.

“My mother was horrified,” said Davis. “She knew what I had was called ‘idiot savant,’ and there was no way they were going to label her son an idiot. At her request, from then on, anytime teachers were doing anything with numbers in school, I would have to sit in the coat closet in the dark until they finished.”

What Davis called “idiot savant” refers to savant syndrome, which pertains to a person with a developmental disorder exhibiting brilliance or genius in a specific area.

Yet he could barely communicate. For instance, at 16, if “I wanted to go somewhere with someone,” he said, “I would say ‘You car go, me car go, me car go, you me car.’ That would be asking if I could go with someone in their car. The school kids used to call me retard, idiot, and imbecile, but when they gave me the label ‘genius’, the kids began treating me differently.”

In addition, his father physically abused him.

When he was 17, an I.Q. test measured his intelligence at “genius” level. It was only then he began learning to talk in sentences. He tried reading, but learned he had what educators would later call dyslexia. Over the years, his tested I.Q. has averaged 170.

Next week learn about the rest of Ron Davis’ life.