Herman Archibald “Archie” Casto died on Monday, November 4th, 1997 at the age of 83.
As is customary, those few simple words document the end of a man’s life but they certainly give no insight into who he was or the kind of life he had lived. The local newspaper reported that over 100 people attended Archie’s funeral service and that there was standing room only at the back of the church. Several people, mostly staff who had worked closely with Archie during the last several years of his life, stepped up to the pulpit to share their memories of him and how he had touched their hearts and changed their lives. Autism Services Center even renamed the house in which he lived “Casto House” in his honor and hung his portrait over the fireplace.
But who was this man and what was his story? Well, it is quite a story and, once heard, it is hard to forget.
Archie was the youngest of three children born to an average family in the small town of Huntington, WV. He had an older brother and an older sister named Harriet, but Archie received most of the attention simply because he required it. Archie was born with the ability to hear, but could not speak. He was extremely hyperactive and hated to have his daily routine interrupted. In those early years, he had a number of close calls that could have resulted in major injury and his parents feared not only for his safety, but for the safety of their other children as well.
By the time he was five, his parents were at their wits end about how to handle this wild child of theirs and sought the help of their family doctor. When they returned, Archie’s mother was in tears. The doctor had diagnosed Archie as insane. His advice was to place Archie in an institution, walk away, go on with their lives and never look back. Insanity was considered something to be ashamed of, generally looked upon as a dark family secret, and definitely incurable. In the words of his mother, “Some things are worse than death, and this is one of them.”
This young child, who had never even attended a day of school or spent any time away from home, was now estranged from the only family he had ever known and placed in an insane asylum. Since there were no institutions specifically for children, Archie was placed in the same ward as adults. He had no friends or toys to play with and he now found himself in an entirely alien and potentially dangerous environment with no one to protect him. He was on his own.
Institutions of this type were not typically known for their friendly environments and there’s no way of knowing what hardships or possible abuse Archie had to endure in the years following his confinement. Supervisors at the institution considered Archie untrainable so no effort was ever made to teach him anything, not even how to dress or take care of himself. He eventually developed a few institutional behaviors like rolling up his clothes and tucking them under his pillow to prevent them from being stolen, pushing his shoes far back under his bed so they could not be seen, and using one arm wrapped around his plate to protect his food while eating with the other one.
When Archie was about 10 or 12, he must have either been angry or fought back because he bit one or more of his caregivers. No documentation was available to explain the cause of this outburst, but to prevent it from ever happening again, the institution pulled out all of Archie’s teeth. Over the next several years, Archie was transferred to two other hospitals within the state, something that probably added to his anxiety level and fear.
Archie’s sister, Harriet, visited him regularly wherever he was sent. There were times though when she wondered if it was all worth it; if her visits made any difference at all to Archie. She got her answer one day when one of his caregivers told her that Archie would watch out the window on the days of her visits. When her little blue car entered the parking lot, a brief flicker of a smile would cross his face and he would head towards the entrance to meet her. This comforted her and reinforced her determination to continue her visits.
Harriet would sometimes take Archie for rides in her car or home with her for dinner. He would climb into her car and after being told once to buckle up, would do it automatically without being reminded. After they arrived at her home, Archie would routinely pick up any paper or trash that had blown into her yard and place it in the trash can. On one occasion, Harriet asked Archie to help carry some plants from her car into the garage. And then she wondered because of his years of confinement, if he even knew what a garage was, but to her surprise and amazement when she entered the garage all the plants were perfectly lined up on the table in a neat little row exactly where she wanted them. She realized that Archie understood more than he was given credit for and he was certainly capable of learning.
Years later while reading a magazine, Harriet’s attention was drawn to an interview with Ruth C. Sullivan, Ph.D. about a little-known and misunderstood disorder called autism. The more she read about the symptoms, the more convinced she became that they were describing her brother. Could it be possible that he was misdiagnosed? She needed answers and in her indomitable style, she was determined to find them. She contacted Dr. Sullivan and convinced her to see Archie. No promises were made, but it took only one visit for Dr. Sullivan to determine that Archie had autism!
In that single moment, Archie’s life was changed forever. As far as it could be determined, he now became the oldest individual ever to be diagnosed with autism and also the oldest client of Autism Services Center (ASC).
In 1988, Archie was moved into one of the homes operated by ASC, a home he would share with five other individuals with disabilities. He now had a room of his own, a semi-private bath, and best of all, a teddy bear which he kissed and hugged every night before bed. On the outside may have been a 70-year-old body, but inside still lived the spirit of that little 5-year-old-boy who had his childhood stolen from him so many years ago. This move also brought him back to his hometown of Huntington, making it easier for Harriet to visit him more frequently.
Everything was different now. Archie was treated with kindness and respect. He came to realize that he now had a home and people who cared about him, people who wanted him to live up to his fullest potential. It took a few years, however, before that blank haunted look disappeared from his eyes to be replaced by one of curiosity and joy. Archie learned how to bathe and dress himself, make his bed, and assist with other household tasks. He responded quickly to the new learning experiences and took his jobs seriously. His favorite chore was taking out the trash, and he would doggedly fight anyone who stood in his way of performing his duties.
Archie also took delight in drawing, coloring and painting. He became friends with the handyman who would give him a board with large nails partially imbedded and Archie would happily spend hours hammering them in. If not watched closely though, staff would find Archie bouncing gleefully on his bed, high enough to hit his head on the ceiling, a potentially dangerous activity for anyone, especially someone of his advanced years.
Staff who worked with Archie on a regular basis found him endearing. Here was an elderly man, not quite 5-feet tall, with the enthusiasm of a youngster and who could, in a very short time, run them ragged. He had more energy than most of his 20-year old staff.
One minute he would be playing tug-of-war with the waste basket and the next he would gently caress their cheek with the palm of his hand. Harriet observed this touching gesture between Archie and his staff and longed for the day when Archie would bestow it upon her, too. She would visit him often, bring him his favorite cookies and staff would also take Archie to her home. Each time when saying their goodbyes, Harriet would lean down bringing her face close to his and hoping for that gentle touch, a touch she never received. And then one day, when she had almost given up hope, Archie reached up and tenderly caressed her face. The long anticipation was finally rewarded and staff knew how much this moment meant to Harriet. From then on, it became a ritual whenever they parted.
Archie also loved seeing staff smile and would lightly tap their teeth with his finger, probably trying to remember what it was like when he also had teeth.
ASC endeavors to include their clients in community activities whenever possible, so Archie now enjoyed attending church on Sundays, going to local parks, the zoo, a horse farm, and even country music concerts. Archie also became a favorite of the sorority girls who lived in the house next door. They would frequently drop by to say hello and see how he was doing. He attended a senior citizens center several days a week so he could participate in their activities and interact with his peers. He also enjoyed bowling and riding his bike on the sidewalk outside his home. He displayed a childlike wonder at every new experience.
Realizing that Archie had been confined in institutions for the major part of his life, staff requested approval to take him somewhere he had never been before, someplace special. So, at the age of 81, Archie, along with his housemates and staff, went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It was the first time Archie had ever seen the ocean. Of course, precautions were taken to counter the effects of the harsh sun on his bald head. Pictures of the trip show Archie on the deck of the hotel gazing out over the ocean in contentment and amazement, wearing casual beach clothes and always wearing hats or a bandana.
If we can learn anything from Archie’s life, it is that individuals with disabilities, regardless of their age, have the ability to learn and become part of the community.
Our senior years are frequently referred to as the “golden years” of our lives and that description would certainly apply to Archie. The single golden thread running throughout Archie’s entire life was his sister, Harriet. She never abandoned him and never gave up hope. She visited him wherever he was for over 70 years. Her devotion and loyalty earned her national recognition from the Autism Society of America when they awarded her their Sibling Advocate Award in July of 1991 and told her story in their national newsletter, The Advocate. Her story was also featured in Women’s World magazine.
Harriet was 10 years older than Archie. When she died, the question arose as to how to impart the news to Archie and if he would even understand. It was decided that Archie should be brought up to the main office where a supervisor would take Archie to a quiet room and try to explain it to him. Initially, he showed no reaction, and it was decided that he could return to his home and his normal daily routine. His caregiver gently ushered Archie back to reception area. As they waited for the elevator to reach the 9th floor, Archie wandered over to the window overlooking the city. He stood there quietly for several long moments, and then one single large tear slid slowly down his cheek.
Archie spent the last nine years of his life in a home operated by Autism Services Center. His champion, Harriet, often referred to them as the happiest years of his life.