Meet Jason Arday, the Cambridge Professor Who Didn’t Learn to Talk Until Age 11, or to Read Until Age 18

When Jason Arday became a pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge at the age of 37, he also became the youngest black per­son ever appoint­ed to a pro­fes­sor­ship there. That’s impres­sive, but it becomes much more so when you con­sid­er that he did­n’t learn to speak until he was eleven years old and read until he was eigh­teen. Diag­nosed with Autism Spec­trum Dis­or­der at the age of three, he had to find dif­fer­ent ways to devel­op him­self and his life than most of us, and also to take advan­tage of help from the right col­lab­o­ra­tors: his moth­er, for instance, who learned the val­ue of rep­e­ti­tion to the autis­tic mind, and intro­duced her son to the high­ly repet­i­tive game of snook­er to get him used to mas­ter­ing tasks.

“It’s hard to say if it worked or not,” Arday says in the Great Big Sto­ry video above. “Well, in terms of snook­er, it did, because I became a real­ly good snook­er play­er.” An inter­est­ed high school teacher, Chris Trace, and lat­er a col­lege tutor named San­dro San­dri, encour­aged Arday to use his strong focus to not just catch up with but far sur­pass the aver­age stu­dent.

“I don’t con­sid­er myself to be intel­li­gent,” Arday says in the Black in Acad­e­mia video below, “but I would bet that I’m one of the hard­est-work­ing peo­ple in the world.” In the Soci­ol­o­gy of Edu­ca­tion depart­ment, he’s direct­ed his own work toward improv­ing the sit­u­a­tion of stu­dents pos­sessed of sim­i­lar dri­ve in sim­i­lar­ly dif­fi­cult start­ing con­di­tions.

Among Arday’s projects, accord­ing to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge’s web site, “a book with Dr. Chantelle Lewis (Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford) about the chal­lenges and dis­crim­i­na­tion faced by neu­ro­di­verse pop­u­la­tions and stu­dents of col­or,” a pro­gram “to sup­port the men­tal health of young peo­ple from eth­nic minor­i­ty back­grounds,” research into “the role of the arts and cul­tur­al lit­er­a­cy in effec­tive men­tal health inter­ven­tions,” and “a book about Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Grace­land, focus­ing on the eth­i­cal dilem­mas the singer-song­writer con­front­ed by break­ing cul­tur­al apartheid in South Africa to involve mar­gin­al­ized black com­mu­ni­ties in its pro­duc­tion.”

Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured work on how music has helped autis­tic young peo­ple. It’s cer­tain­ly helped Arday, who cred­its cer­tain songs with help­ing him along in his quest for knowl­edge and aca­d­e­m­ic cre­den­tials. He makes ref­er­ence to David Bowie’s song “Gold­en Years,” because “there was a peri­od of five years where it felt like every­thing I touched turned to gold — and I had anoth­er peri­od of five years where it was just real­ly, real­ly dif­fi­cult.” Over­com­ing dis­ad­van­tages seems to have con­sti­tut­ed half of Arday’s bat­tle, but no less impor­tant, in his telling, has been his sub­se­quent deci­sion to focus on his dis­tinc­tive set of strengths. Despite the young age at which he made pro­fes­sor, none of this came quick­ly — but then, he’d been psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly pre­pared for that by anoth­er of his major musi­cal touch­stones: AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wan­na Rock ‘N’ Roll).”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Cheap Trick’s Bassist Tom Peters­son Helps Kids With Autism Learn Lan­guage With Rock ‘n’ Roll: Dis­cov­er “Rock Your Speech”

“Pro­fes­sor Risk” at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Says “One of the Biggest Risks is Being Too Cau­tious”

Blondie Drum­mer Clem Burke and Sci­en­tif­ic Researchers Show That Drum­ming Can Help Kids with Autism Learn More Effec­tive­ly in School

The Wis­dom & Advice of Mau­rice Ash­ley, the First African-Amer­i­can Chess Grand­mas­ter

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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