If you’ve ever had a class with Larkin Taylor Parker, you know she’s a dirty-dishwater-blonde badass who writes with a heavy black ink pen in handwriting that literally scrawls in spirals down the page (a graphologist would have a field day). You’ll also know that she carefully, calmly, cherry picks every word that leaves her mouth. “Thoughtful” is an understatement. If you haven’t had a class with her, you’ve probably seen her carrying her forty-five pound tuba thru the quad- or even come upon her sitting on the grass practicing late at night, as I once did last spring. Larkin sat down with us in McCain and talked about her father (ever notice the fair-skinned fancy fellow who wears a bowtie every day? That’s him), her love at first sight encounter with the tuba, and the why she’s going to shake up the current education model for autism.
Okay, so did you move here from North Carolina?
LTP: I moved to Decatur the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.
Oh, that’s awful. That sounds like a movie.
LTP: It really was. [laughs]
Why did you move?
LTP: My father got a job here and things were changing a lot and not in ways that were good for me at my previous high school, so it was good to be able to leave.
What does he do?
LTP: He’s vice president for advancement and communications. He’s the guy in the bowties.
LTP: Mhmm. Always bowties.
When did you start playing the tuba?
LTP: I have been playing since I was twelve.
What drew you to the tuba?
LTP: Nothing whatsoever. I took it up because I was told to. I liked it after I played it, but I was a very bad little middle school trumpet player and my band director needed tuba players, so she told me I was going to try. She did not ask for my opinion on that.
Did you grow to love the tuba?
LTP: Almost instantly. It was the strangest thing, but I, I was suddenly good at something besides—besides like reading and writing for the first time in my life and I really enjoyed it. I went home from school that day and told my parents to start saving for a tuba.
Did finding things that you were good at give you confidence in yourself?
LTP: Yeah, I’m autistic and I was kind of raised to think that I was delicate. I couldn’t really do anything physically demanding or anything that involved leadership, so it was an incredible confidence builder. My grades got better; I started making friends.
What do you want to do?
LTP: I want to start out as at least an attorney, writing kids special education paperwork, and going to the meetings at the schools to plan their educations and make sure they’re getting what is legally their due.
And is that because kids right now are not getting their due?
LTP: In my experience, they’re really not. Especially kids with other disadvantages—poor and minority kids.
Why do you think the government is not helping them?
LTP: Well, I think the government is trying, but schools are in a bad position. There are some federal programs that seek to mitigate this, but they’re always threatened with cuts. A lot of times, doing right by the child costs the school district money. And given the fact that school districts are always facing budget cuts, it’s very difficult for them to give children—the ones officials often perceive as the least able to succeed—the resources. They feel like they’re in a triage situation and they have to spend the money on the kids they perceive as having a chance.
What do you want to help with?
LTP: I want to shift the whole model. I think schools are still operating on the medical model of disability, which is that the problem is very much with the person, not the environment that makes the person’s limitation a big problem. I want to bring the social model more into the schools.
Why is autism so important to you?
LTP: It’s important to me because that’s my own little group and I think we’re all inclined to care about our own identities and also because I’ve seen people in that category struggle particularly. I mean, depending on who you ask, in most of the developed world we have a 70-75% unemployment rate.
What is it like being an autistic person?
LTP: That’s kind of like asking like what it’s not like, because I’ve never experienced anything else. It’s interesting. I think sort of structurally, not words, it’s good for rhetoric. It means I do pretty well on research papers [laughs], but it’s hard having sensory issues because normal environments are pretty much always too loud, too bright, too strong smelling for my comfort level.
So your senses are blown up?
LTP: [Nods]. Which is helpful for playing an instrument, but not helpful for, say, walking through a cafeteria.
Does it affect you socially?
LTP: It does. I think I want close relationships, like anyone else, but I want fewer and I don’t so much want acquaintances. I like having friends, but I’m not big on small talk. I do it kind of badly.
I feel you on that. So you kind of want quality over quantity?
That’s very rare in our generation of 536 Facebook friends [both laugh]. Do you have those connections, do you have close connections?
LTP: I do. I have some of them on campus and I have some of them off campus through music things I do, which is interesting because that, in terms of age, is a lot more diverse and I’ve been around people in environments older than me, I think, unlike a lot of college students, my group of friends does have some age diversity.
What do you think about Agnes Scott?
LTP: I like it, generally, but it can be a little bit…a little bit small. Towards the end of the semester you can tell who hasn’t gotten off campus enough, but it’s generally a very warm, caring environment. I spent most of high school at a place where literally everything that wasn’t nailed down got stolen, so I really appreciate the honor code. I would not have turned my back on my laptop for 15 seconds there and here things are just so much more livable and it’s so much more civilized. I think really well of the people around me because it actually works.
What’s the worst flaw a person can have?
LTP: I guess the worst flaw I’ve ever seen play out is just inability to, to acknowledge other people as people. You could call it lack of empathy or lack of compassion or just lack of interest, but someone who is sort of socially obnoxious or is a little bit dishonest or will sometimes steal your ice cream out of the freezer—that’s livable. The people who won’t feel bad when they harm another person and can’t see enough of themselves in other people and enough common humanity in other people to want to help them and not want to hurt them? Those individuals are scary.
Have you met individuals like that?
LTP: A few.
What were those individuals like?
LTP: When I was a kid and in special ed, a couple of them were adults that had power over me and they didn’t treat me too well. And when I’ve seen it in peers, I’ve always seen lying, cheating, stealing, upsetting people for fun, manipulation, all of the things we think of as bad follow in the wake of that lack of compassion.
Was there anybody in particular that really showed you what it means to pay attention and to take notice and to care about human beings? Have you ever heard that phrase ‘How a man treats his waiter will tell you everything you need to know’?
LTP: Yeah, and I put a lot of stock in that. The first one was when I was very young caregiver my sister and I had. We lived in an apartment complex in Chicago in which there were not very many functioning adults. A lot of the families were struggling, a lot of single parents were worked such long hours that they couldn’t take care of their kids, some drug addiction, a lot of very sad things to watch and this woman was paid to watch two children for one family, but she tried—she tried to do what she could for 10 or 15 kids living in this group of buildings. They were not her problem. They were not her responsibility. She couldn’t do that much to help them, but she did what she could and she’s where I get the idea that I am my sister and brother’s keeper.
Who else was?
LTP: A couple of band directors. My first two. I saw them invest a little more time than they needed to in individual children. In small ways, they went out of their way, like the person who decided to teach me to play tuba. Susan Eisenson, she spent a few extra minutes of her time on me and changed my life. She did that for a lot of kids and it made me see what difference small things could make.
What do you believe about people, Larkin?
LTP: I’m fundamentally suspicious of them—tend to disapprove of them.
Why are you suspicious of people?
LTP: I’m by nature kind of a pessimist and also I’ve been the waiter, so to speak—I’ve been the kid that whether you were a child or adult there were no consequences for bullying and I know that a lot of us are not nice people and that we can get away with things. The interesting thing about being autistic is really living in the world as an outsider and I’ve seen that people, people aren’t always as decent as they think they will be when they come up against that.
What do you believe about yourself, Larkin?
LTP: I believe that I’m not always nice and I can be snarky and impatient, but I have some principles and I cannot watch a child get hurt, which is going to- that anger and willingness to stand up for kids, paired with- you know, I think I’m smart, I think I’m fairly clever and ambitious. I think I have the potential to make change, to do things that are worthwhile and I plan to, and because I have a moral absolutist streak, and really no patience for moral relativism, some anger and a deep sense of fairness that has been offended by the way we do education for certain groups I think I should make people that like the status quo a little nervous. And that I really love tuba. That I know for sure.
What’s your favorite ice cream from Mollie’s?
LTP: I like Phish Food.