When beginning a new story, I tend to go through periods of obsession with my reading. Race relationships in Chicago, cults, female veterans from the Iraq war, and so on. My latest reading kick is about autism. In part because my second grade son got diagnosed as being on the spectrum a few months ago and I really want to understand how he sees the world–meaning I want to understand why the world bothers him so much but also what he finds beautiful in it– but I’m also working on a story that happens to be about an 8-year-old son (or thereabouts) who is on the spectrum. (The above picture, by the way, was taken by my little guy.)
The books on autism I’ve read so far have been engaging and insightful, and it’s a relief to often see my son within their pages. The process of finding out what those with autism find beautiful–trying to understand how differently they see the world–has also just been very moving to me. I think some of us who are outside whatever spectrum of normal exists, whether by choice or not, can relate to the feeling of otherness that keeps surfacing in these accounts. In several books, I’ve read comparisons about how those on the spectrum feel like they’re visitors from another planet, or visitors from some other time, and I’m not trying to belittle the struggles that people with autism face, but I imagine many of us can relate to such feelings. Take this passage from Daniel Tammet’s worthwhile memoir Born on a Blue Day:
“I liked spending time among the playground’s trees because there I could walk up and down, absorbed in my thoughts, and not worry about being pushed or knocked over. As I walked, it felt for brief moments as though I could make myself disappear by standing behind each tree. There was certainly no shortage of times when I felt like I wanted to vanish. I just did not seem to fit in anywhere, as though I had been born into the wrong world. The sense of never feeling quite comfortable or secure, of always being somehow apart and separate, weighed heavily on me.”
Otherness sucks in a lot of ways, of course, but it also allows “the other” to witness or notice things most people can’t see. My favorite parts of Tammet’s book was where he describes his ability to recognize a beauty that probably isn’t accessible to the rest of us–a beauty in numbers, for instance, or in silence. This is what I hope for my son: that in addition to all the struggles he has to face, he will get to experience his own moments of contentment, satisfaction, and beauty, and in those moments, he will feel such emotions more intensely and fully than I ever will be able to.
”There are moments, as I’m falling into sleep at night, that my mind fills suddenly with bright light and all I can see are numbers—hundreds, thousands of them—swimming rapidly over my eyes. The experience is beautiful and soothing to me. Some nights, when I’m having difficulty falling asleep, I imagine myself walking around my numerical landscapes. Then I feel safe and happy. I never feel lost, because the prime number shapes act as signposts.”
”I became an increasingly quiet child and spent most of my time in my room, sitting on my own in a particular spot on the floor, absorbed in the silence. Sometimes I’d press my fingers into my ears to get closer to the silence, which was never static in my mind, but a silky, trickling motion around my head like condensation. When I closed my eyes I pictured it as soft and silvery.”
“Everyone is said to have a perfect moment once in a while, an experience of complete peace and connection, like looking out from the top of the Eiffel Tower or watching a falling star high in the night sky. I do not have many such moments, but Neil says that is okay because being rare is what makes them so special. My most recent came one weekend last summer at home— they often happen to me while I am at home— after a meal I had cooked and eaten with Neil. We were sitting together in the living room, feeling full and happy. All of a sudden I experienced a kind of self-forgetting and in that brief, shining moment all my anxiety and awkwardness seemed to disappear. I turned to Neil and asked him if he had felt the same sensation and he said he had. I imagine these moments as fragments or splinters scattered across a lifetime. If a person could somehow collect them all up and stick them together he would have a perfect hour or even a perfect day. And I think in that hour or day he would be closer to the mystery of what it is to be human. It would be like having a glimpse of heaven.”
Books on autism that I’ve either finished or am currently reading
- Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet.I loved this book. It’s a memoir of a boy with Asperger’s and I found it amazing and encouraging on a lot of levels, including how accepting Daniel’s parents were of his limitations when he was a child (note to self), and also how Daniel gained self-awareness and really taught himself how to connect with others, even finding a wonderfully loving relationship with someone who supports and understands him.
- The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed, by Temple Grandin. A very understandable yet nicely scientific book about how autistic brains are different from our own.
- The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, by Naoki Higashida, translated by David Mitchell. Brief fascinating book about an autistic boy trying to explain how he perceives the world. One of my favorite passages:
“When you see an object, it seems that you see it as an entire thing first, and only afterward do its details follow on. But for people with autism, the details jump straight out at us first of all, and then only gradually, detail by detail, does the whole image sort of float up into focus. What part of the whole image captures our eyes first depends on a number of things. When a color is vivid or a shape is eye-catching, then that’s the detail that claims our attention, and then our hearts kind of drown in it, and we can’t concentrate on anything else. Every single thing has its own unique beauty. People with autism get to cherish this beauty, as if it’s a kind of blessing given to us. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we can never be completely lonely. We may look like we’re not with anyone, but we’re always in the company of friends.”
- “People Don’t Get Me, Mom“: an essay in Good Housekeeping my mom sent me by Jackie Mercurio. It’s beautiful and hopeful, but as I was telling my mom, so often Asperger kids are portrayed as sad and sensitive in the non-fiction I read. I want someone to write about having an angry and frustrated and even mean Asperger’s kid. (One reason why I am excited to start this new story). In response, my mom sweetly wrote, “I hope one day you can write J.’s story that is hopeful. His journey has just begun and you are in it to win. Keep the faith.”
- The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s, by Temple Grandin: a collection of brief practical-minded essays
- The Survival Guide for Kids With Autism Spectrum Disorder (and their parents): J. and I read this book together every other night for a few weeks until he told me this is more my kind of book. I keep it inside my nightstand table as reassurance.
- 1001 Great Ideas for Raising Children with Autism or Asperger’s, expanded 2nd edition: I also keep this book by my nightstand, finding it comforting and that this many ideas exist.
- Temple Grandin (the HBO movie): It’s not perfect but there are many moving moments here relating to Temple and her mom’s relationship. I found the following interchange heartbreaking–the realization that no matter how many books you read, or how many new techniques you learn, or hard you work to be a better parent, there are certain things your child may never learn (like caring how another person feels? like kindness?).
Eustacia: Temple, look at me. Look at me. Do you know how people tell each other things with their eyes? This is me telling you that I love you and I respect you.
Temple Grandin: [long tearful pause] I will never learn how to do that.
Eustacia: I know.
Books I optimistically and perhaps unrealistically hope to read
- A Thorn in My Pocket: Temple Grandin’s Mother Tells the Family Story. Eustacia Cutler
- Ido in Autism Land: Climbing Out of Autism’s Silent Prison. Ido Kedir
- Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism: Arthur Fleischmann
- Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism, Clara Claiborne Park
- Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl. Donna Williams
- Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Expanded Edition. Liane Holliday Willey