Autism, Narrative, & Childhood


According to a Louis Theroux documentary on autism, 1 in 100 Americans have autism. With his usual humour, Theroux attempts to get behind families ‘dealing’ with autism, and the individual lives of people. Louis follows a number of people, especially Nicky, who is moving to a new school. Theroux is curious whether there are more children who could make Nicky’s advanced level of progress. Nicky’s mother relates a story about her son going to a church, aged six, and only then learning to talk, claiming this might be a coincidence or a miracle. Story telling and narrative are essential to all identities, especially in these contexts, where sometimes the use of language is harder. Nicky turns this into a joke, saying his ability may not be a great thing, as he’s got into so much trouble with his mouth. Other kids are more difficult than Nicky, maybe even violent, but Louis ends his documentary on a high. He has learnt to have a lot of love for these children, and he is in awe of the parents who have performed a small miracle of their own, in their ability to keep going in often tough circumstances.

As with all the best storytellers, Louis subverts our expectations. Controversy over autism was raised in March 2016 when actor Robert De Niro decided to screen a film about the connection between autism and vaccination at the Tribeca Film Festival. This film was then pulled, following further consultation with scientists who knew the link was bogus. Often celebrity culture is the only way various issues get raised. Saying someone is ‘on the spectrum’ is used by those who are ignorant of autism, and often as a form of insult. We could all do with being educated more. Probably the best book on autism is ‘The Reason Why I Jump: One Boys Voice from the Silence of Autism’, by Naoki Higashida. Anyone interested in writing and narrative at all should read this excellent book that contains short chapters on autism, written by this 13-year-old boy with autism, plus a creative short-story. The English version of the book is introduced by the novelist David Mitchell, whose son has autism.

As if sometimes the case with a so-called disability, an infantilisation occurs. Before the author Charles Dickens instilled the popular idea of pity, comprehensively documenting the suffering of children in fiction, children were perceived as having no feelings, and of being sub-human, as I have explained in a number of books (e.g. Lee 2005, 13). This may seem strange, from today’s perspective, where parents are accused of being mollycoddling and over protective. Our knowledge of autism has not caught up with our apparent knowledge of children and childhood in general. Paradoxically, the ignorant stereotype of people with autism is that they are insensitive, lacking in awareness, positioned in a pre-Dickensian paradigm. My experience of autism is that it can be the opposite, not exactly too much sensitivity, but almost super-sensitivity. This could be recognised as a talent. This is not romanticising autism, but it is taking it beyond the notion of a problem, allowing a more open approach. It is useful to see what open narratives, critical and creative, can flow from this stance.

At the end of the nineteenth century there was a fixation with rooting out the core causes of development, of ascertaining the fundamental elements of the mature human psyche. With such knowledge, the past could then predict the future, just as astrophysicists at the end of the twentieth century hoped to discover the mind of God in the entrails of the fledgling universe. Due to their increasing development or decimation due to colonisation, scientists believed there was no point examining primitive peoples. But both the child and the ‘noble savage’ were spaces within which conclusions could be reached, concerning the nature of what it is to be human. The idea was that truth will surface from within children, and this needed to be extrapolated in the name of science and progress. This truth was embodied, not just a hypothetical psychological reality purely based in the nebulous regions of the mind. In a world moving further away from the physical, through reason, an obsession with the pure body and the child intensified.

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