YORK, Maine — Even as young as 3 and 4 years old, James Kences knew something was different about him. A “sedentary child” who wanted to read and study, Kences found quickly that he was not fitting in, with his parents, with his siblings, with other children.

He was a young man when finally he was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disabilities that fall under autism spectrum disorder, as well as obsessive compulsive disorder. Brilliant in understanding and assimilating archaeology and history, he was reading maritime history books at a time when his classmates were trying to put together complex sentences. But due to his disability, his brain simply can not grasp math or science concepts.

Growing up in the 1960s, he said, was excruciating under these circumstances. Constant bullying, parents who demanded he thrive like his siblings, a lack of understanding of what was going on with him, glimmers of hope dashed as teachers crushed creativity, he said, were the norm.

“This era did not have any idea of learning disabilities at all. My mother took me to doctors who would lecture me about my hypochondria and eccentricities. There was no glimmer of insight,” he said. “You were bad, you were stubborn, you were stupid. That’s the message I had growing up.”

Kences will speak about his life, its challenges and rewards at the York Public Library at noon, Wednesday, Nov. 12. He hopes the talk will bring a wide variety of people, including parents who have a child with a learning disability, adults who don’t quite get the other-abled among us, educators, and others.

But parents are his key audience.

“Mine is a cautionary tale for parents, and for teachers, too. You have to be careful. You have to recognize the survival strategies for individuals who have learning disabilities, because if you threaten those strategies, you threaten their survival,” said the 56-year-old York man.

‘I changed very rapidly’

His childhood, he said, was one of incredible loneliness, isolation and feeling of inadequacy. Second grade serves as an example. Because he tested off the charts in reading and language arts the year before, he was placed in an accelerated class.

“I was the star of the class. We were studying American Indians, and they provoked a level of interest that took me entirely by surprise. I became fascinated with all Indian tribes, and if you think I’m kidding, I’m not,” he said with a laugh. This intense interest in history would lead him while still a child to collect coins and artifacts, creating a museum in his room. As an adult, his focused study habits have concentrated on periods from Colonial America to the Salem witchcraft trials to the Civil War.

But he could not grasp the math he was having to learn in second grade.

“I filtered out what I didn’t do well and didn’t see it as crucial,” he said. When his father — the superintendent of the school system where he grew up — found out he was failing math, “I was marched down the stairs from the gifted class, with the principal escorting me,” to a less challenging class. A girl stood up from her seat, Kences’ replacement in the gifted class, and he took her place.

“Everyone knew I was dumb,” he said. “There was bullying not just at the top of the hierarchy of bullies, there was a triangle of people who found ways to humiliate me. ‘You don’t get math. You must be dumb.’ I changed very rapidly from an enthusiastic kid to a very withdrawn, discouraged, overwhelmed kid.”

There were moments of joy, though. His mother would take him some Saturdays to a collectibles shop in town, just to let him rummage. “It was one of these magical experiences for me. I’d find a photo of a Civil War soldier, and he’d say, ‘Oh you can have that.’ Or I’d find a little ivory carving. ‘Yeah, you can have that.’”

Kences lost his composure, though, when talking about another experience. At the age of 11, he and his family visited Sweden. Already working on that museum in his room at home, he found in a Swedish farmer’s house a Neolithic-era ax head.

“I desperately wanted that ax and he gave it to me,” said Kences, who cried at the memory. “It didn’t happen often. It didn’t happen often, people acting like people. Once in a while, I saw this other world where people acted humanely toward one another.

“I don’t want to think of people who were unkind. I want to think of people who were generous.”

‘Education is about wonder’

The dual life of a rigorous academic inquiry into history and archaeology, and an increasingly failed effort to understand mathematics, languages and science continued into high school and college. As a high school senior, he had already worked on an archaeological dig with a Harvard University professor, but he was getting failing grades in math.

He was able to get into the University of Massachusetts, where he excelled in the classes that intrigued him. But by his junior year, he was being told he had to take required courses in math and science, which he failed. He left college in his senior year.

In the years since, Kences has amassed a bank of knowledge that would daunt most people. As someone who has OCD, Kences is indeed obsessive about tracking down data and obscure sources that might elude those other than credentialed academicians. After leaving college, he embarked on “a complete chronology of antebellum America, from 1790 to 1860. It was huge. I put all of this daily effort into it, and I still work on it to this day.”

He tried to get a paper published, he said, “but nobody knew what to do with it.” Similar studies he’s undertaken over the years have been similarly met by the academic press, he said. Either publishers were overwhelmed by the length, or they derided his lack of academic credentials, he said.

“I aspire toward this goal of self study at the highest level of competence,” he said, citing such self-taught geniuses as Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers and, perhaps most important of all, Leonardo Da Vinci, “who said, ‘I am a man without letters.’”

“This is my point of greatest pain. I have no credentials, no social standing. And yet I am doing this important work,” he said.

But again, there are moments of grace. In his just-published book “A Storm of Witchcraft,” York resident and Salem State University history Professor Emerson “Tad” Baker, acknowledges Kences for his help.

“James is an original thinker,” Baker wrote, saying, “…some of the freshest thinking in this book comes from James. I thank him for unselfishly sharing his ideas and encouraging me to include them.”

Kences said he sees his upcoming presentation at the York Public Library as just the beginning of a grander mission. He hopes to be able to go into area schools and talk with children about his life and experiences.

“Education is about wonder. Learning is about wonder. This is the message I want to give,” he said. “I’m a survivor. I’ve been bullied by hundreds of people. I know all the strategies, I know all the techniques. I know what it’s like to fail in school.

“But scholastic failure is something you can survive. You see, I’m still here.”