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The Leap

Teddy at his bar mitzvah with his brother, Clay, and his mother, Carla.  

It was Teddy who diagnosed something if not unlucky then different about himself. In seventh-grade biology, he was studying Gardner’s seven types of intelligence. Around the same time, in English, he was reading Flowers for Algernon. Something clicked, and one day, when Carla came home, he asked if she thought he was autistic.

“No! What are you talking about?”

“Well, I’ve been doing some reading … ”

Tests soon confirmed that Teddy had a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, which is itself a form of high-functioning autism. Typified by social and often physical awkwardness, by narrow interests and rigid thinking, Asperger’s, especially a mild case, can look rather like ordinary male adolescence. Indeed, Teddy’s executive-functioning scores were perfectly average—but so much lower than his intellectual-ability scores that the gap implied a deficit. Suddenly, his social awkwardness and his intense focus on specific interests began to make sense, and it did not require speculation about the anonymous sperm donor to posit a genetic source. Carla wondered if she herself had a touch of the syndrome—“I certainly have social issues, too,” she says—and is all but sure about her father, who was a brilliant businessman but “very blunt.” In a high-achieving family (Carla’s sister, Cinda, is an exploration geologist), it can be difficult to say; for all its limitations, Asperger’s often brings with it uncommon gifts.

Teddy seemed to accept that mixed message. In an English paper he wrote three months before his death, he shrugged off the downside of being evaluated (“I hate uncertainty”) but relished the upside (proof of his super-high IQ). He seemed less interested in the resultant recommendations than in the process of discovery itself. “Yes, it may be strange that I take so much pleasure in testing,” he wrote. “I strive for achievement, and I’m not convinced such passion is a bad thing, even if I do get overzealous at times.”

Overzealous and yet also otherworldly. With his intolerance for ambiguity, Teddy was black and white, rarely gray: “Awkward or lovely,” his best Dalton friend, Andrew Beaton, says, “depending on your perspective.” He constructed precise, “architectural” four-decker sandwiches but left filthy socks (which smelled, a cousin said, like kimchee) on his pillow. Flashes of rage subsided in quick, heartfelt apologies. Sometimes he’d cut people off or cluelessly dominate a conversation; yet “despite the Asperger’s he was the friendliest person to me in a new school,” Beaton says. During a discussion last winter about middle initials, when asked about the meaning of R (as in “Theodore R. Graubard”), Teddy replied that “R equals .0821 liters times atmospheres divided by moles times Kelvin”—the ideal-gas constant. He didn’t get that the context demanded an answer like “Robert.”

But everyone was used to this; for years Heuman-Gutman had no idea Teddy even had Asperger’s, only that he sometimes laughed at “not necessarily appropriate moments.” His friends innately understood how his peculiarities were tied to his best qualities. Was his focus a little intense? Well, that meant he would also dedicate himself to helping anyone who asked, even delivering homework to distant apartments. (He once picked up an exhausted teammate and carried him around the track for two laps.) Were his boundaries vague and permeable? Well, that meant he could express his affection not only to friends but also to mere acquaintances in the halls. Was his sense of frustration fierce and sometimes all-encompassing? So was his loyalty.

To be sure, he could be a growly, secretive, get-off-my-back kind of teenager with his mother; but when strangers later suggested that Teddy was unhappy at home, harboring resentment about his fatherless family, people who knew him just laughed. (Carla says that while Teddy occasionally expressed curiosity about his biological father, the impossibility of learning anything was “totally not something that bothered him.”) Their difficulties were more ordinary: She didn’t give him enough “space”; he spent too long in the shower. Carla accepted as normal that Teddy loved but didn’t always like her, while he loved and liked Clay without reservation. When Clay, a student at Dalton himself, would say that he could never be as smart as his brother, Teddy would tell him to cherish the great gift he had of knowing how to read people and sensing what they want.

Perhaps the most double-edged of Teddy’s binary qualities was his sense of honor, of living by the rules: Even in a world of “cutthroat Dalton private-school things,” Beaton says, “he was not the type of kid who would let someone say something bad about a friend in front of him.” Another friend recalled how with a shake of his finger he would chide classmates for texting in class. “Teddy’s moral code was incredibly strict,” says Stephen Puschel, who, with his brother Andrew, tutored Teddy, tag-team style, four days a week. “He took honesty and integrity more seriously than almost anyone I ever met.”