Monday, October 30, 2006

Recent Autism Books

The Guardian recently reviewed a number of books on autism either by people with autism, or mothers of people with autism. After an inauspicious start ("As many as one in 166 people today may be diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder" - the reviewer runs autism websites, an autism newsletter, and is "writing a book on autism" and should know better) the article improves.

Send in the Idiots, or How We Grew to Understand the World is by Kamran Nazeer, who started life in a special school.

At the time, he could not speak a word. He is now a high-powered policy adviser in Whitehall. This book records his travels around the United States more than 20 years after his schooldays, to see what has become of some of his former classmates. These turn out to be fascinating encounters.

The Jumbled Jigsaw: An Insider's Approach to the Treatment of Autistic Spectrum 'Fruit Salads' by Donna Williams looks at autism from the autistic's perspective.

Those who have read any of Donna Williams's previous eight books will know that she is one of the most articulate and perceptive writers on autism today. She is also autistic herself, and was found to have an IQ of just under 70 at the age of 26, putting her in the "mildly mentally retarded" or "intellectually disabled" range. According to her father, she did not talk for weeks at a time. In her latest remarkable book, The Jumbled Jigsaw, Williams presents autistic spectrum disorders as a whole range of often untreated underlying conditions which can combine to form a "cluster condition" or "fruit salad". One fruit might represent information-processing issues, another identity and personality issues and still another self-help skills. Her professed aim is to dissect the label of autistic spectrum disorder so that it may never be seen in conventional terms again. She hopes that, by correctly identifying which underlying conditions affect early childhood development in an "autistic" way, we should be able to produce a plan of action setting out which types of help are going to work best for which people. She looks at the "toolbox" for fixing problems - and rightly condemns those practitioners who recommend an expensive, one-size-fits-all biomedical approach. She notes, however, that it is equally absurd to maintain that nutritional medicine, or allergy testing, can have no medical benefit to people with autism.

She also relates one of the most telling examples of how autistic individuals can be harmed by preconceptions:

She cites the striking case of a man with autism who had been taught the alphabet for 14 years in a special school before he finally told the teachers that he wanted to learn about art history and physics. When asked why he had continued for so long to give the impression that he had severe learning difficulties, he explained that, as they had assumed him to be incapable, he had given them exactly what they had expected.

Marti Leimbach's Daniel Isn't Talking relates the mother's perspective on life with an autistic child.

Most parents of autistic children, like myself, will recognise elements of Daniel's behaviour: he is a Houdini-like escape artist, will not let his mother touch him, is a fussy eater, has an obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine, has frequent ear infections, is tormented by loud sounds, from barking dogs to doorbells, and is appeased during shopping trips only by being plied with sweets. And above all, like so many children with autism, he is lovely to look at. Melanie points out that mothers who claim that autism is not a disability but a "difference" must have a high-functioning child, not one who smears their own faeces on the carpet and rocks back and forth in silence. In contrast, she describes life with a severely autistic child as "hacking out a jungle with a scythe".

Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Asperger's and an Extraordinary Mind by Daniel Tammet is written by an autistic savant.

Like many people diagnosed with autism (or, in his case, Asperger's syndrome), Tammet needs very strict routines: he eats precisely 45 grams of porridge for breakfast every morning and counts the number of items of clothing he is wearing whenever he leaves his house. Again, like many people with Asperger's, he has poor physical co-ordination and finds it difficult to handle the social processes involved in making friends - although he does have a partner, Neil, a software engineer. Yet it is Tammet's outstanding mathematical and linguistic talents which make him particularly unusual. He can perform impossibly difficult mathematical calculations instantly and can recite pi to 22,514 places from memory. He also speaks 10 languages - he even learnt the fiendishly difficult Icelandic in a week.


  1. I find autistic people diabolically frustrating. It is as if they wilfully torment their carers with pernickety requirements, introversion and disgusting toilet habits. How does someone transform from an IQ 70 to an articulate and perceptive writer? Why would a man torment his teachers for 14 years before revealing his abilities? I feel deepest sympathy for the parents.

  2. Autism is a silly excuse.

  3. "Silly" in what way? "Excuse" in what way? Excuse for what? Why an excuse? EoR is generally dull of mind, but he fails to comprehend what you're implying.

  4. In another just released book, Strange Son, a very unusual young man named Tito who falls on the opposite end of the autism spectrum, shares his equally unusual experience of the world. Tito is severely autistic and nonverbal and yet, astoundingly, he has a high IQ and writes poetry. One hopes that these two books appearing on the scene at nearly the same moment in history, suggests that we are on the verge of a new understanding of the autism spectrum disorders; an understanding that comes from the inside out instead of from the theories and hypotheses of "experts". While the biological causes of autism still remain undiscovered, these firsthand accounts are not only the most valuable tool scientists have to study autism, they are the beginnings of a new understanding of autism for us all. Although the wide-ranging abilities and expressions of the human mind never cease to amaze us, the opportunity to glimpse the world through the unique consciousness of these two young men offers a dazzling and unexpected gift like none that we have encountered in recent memory.


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