Caspar's Lesson

by John Major Jenkins

In the early 1800's, a 17-year old boy appeared in Nürnberg, a small town in Germany. A strange and mysterious being, he could not speak, was dressed in rags, and could barely walk. It later came out that he was a potential heir to Napolean's legacy, and was summarily dispensed with at an early age. Originally believed to be retarded and beyond help, good samaritans intervened and he eventually learned how to speak and became a popular figure while he lived. He was named Caspar Hauser. Due to the continuing political threat he posed by his very being, he was murdered at age 26.
One incident from Caspar's life is valuable to recall, as recorded by his teacher. Caspar was shown the tower where he was kept all those years. Teacher and student stood outside. Casper remarks that, for such a huge tower, a giant must have built it and he would like to meet him. "No, no," says the teacher, "men built it, and I will show you today, in town, the scaffolding they use." The unsuspecting teacher was in for a lesson himself, but continues, "This is the tower you lived in Caspar, up there, in a little room." A thoughtful pause, as Casper tries to reconcile this with his memory; the wheels of cognition spin, his brow furrows, then he brightens. Caspar concludes that the room he lived in must be larger than the tower itself. Yes, of course, that must be true. Why? In the tiny room where he spent his youth, he could look up, down, forward, backward, left and right, and all he sees is room - it completely surrounds him. The room of his youth was everywhere. Standing here in front of the tower, he can simply turn around and it is gone. Thus, the room is larger than the tower.
Anyone who has worked with autistic people will agree that "normal" perspectives are merely relative conventions, something we all agree on. Who is to say that Casper is wrong? It certainly enriches our own perspective. The Caspar principle should be embraced as a lesson in tolerance and open-mindedness. While perspective is relative, perception grows richer when a healthy variety of perspectives have been experienced, embraced, and understood.