Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Michael Tan
Published on page A15 of the August 18, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

A NOVEL where an autistic teenager solves the mystery of a neighbor's murdered poodle?
Why not? Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" makes for a fascinating read as you "listen" to the mind of 15-year-old Christopher, while he unravels a crime involving a murdered dog.

Early in the novel, we realize that Christopher is autistic. His mind plays with numbers, and he loves maps and all kinds of trivial facts. He admits he doesn't like people too much and, no wonder, he has difficulties reading their facial expressions, and hates being touched. But note that he can't tell lies, not even a white lie.

The novel is fast-paced, something you can read on the plane as I did, but be careful because it goes in all sorts of directions as you try to keep up with Christopher's brain, processing the world in the peculiar way autistics do. His trip to London, done on his own, is especially gripping as he tries to figure out what train to take, and how to make his way to a particular address in the city.

Autisms and Asperger'sI'm not surprised Haddon's book is listed in several websites listing resources for families with autistic children. Haddon himself worked with autistics, and deftly drew on his experiences to write this novel. In the process, he reaches a much wider audience with a non-technical perspective on autisms.

I'm using the plural here because autism actually refers to a range of conditions. The term was first coined in Germany in 1912 by the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Bleuler: "autismus" derived from "auto," meaning self and "ismus," the state of. Autism is "the state of self," and was first used to refer to children who seemed caught in their own world, oblivious to their external environment.
In many societies, including our own, such children may be labeled as mentally retarded, and end up isolated and neglected. But the autistic are also often "fixated" on particular tasks, and will exhibit amazing skills in a specific field, such as math, music, painting.

As neurologists and psychiatrists saw more patients, they realized that autism took many variations. Some of the patients were very dependent on their families while others, so-called high-functioning autistics, could live on their own.

In 1944, a Viennese physician, Hans Asperger, published a paper about young boys who had normal intelligence and language development but who had autistic-like behaviors, such as being obsessed with certain routines, and having difficulty reading people's body language and emotions. As with the other autisms, the medical world later realized that Asperger's was more common than they thought, and that some of the people with this condition were very bright and become leaders in professions that require an almost obsessive concentration on particular tasks.

Nerds, geeks, malesIt's not surprising that there's speculation that Albert Einstein had Asperger's. Nerds and geeks may actually be "high-functioning" autistics or people with Asperger's. Note how very bright people will sometimes be very awkward with social skills (sometimes, in exasperation, we even call them "social morons"). Males, incidentally, outnumber females when it comes to autistics (who knows, maybe so-called male insensitivity may actually be a variation of Asperger's).

But we should certainly differentiate people with Asperger's from the mean, the vicious and the corrupt, those who have trapped themselves in dull and drab worlds of their own making, so completely differently from the fascinating and vibrant worlds of autistics and Aspergers.
Haddon's mystery novel allows us to peek into these special minds, while reminding us of how autisms are becoming so much a part of our lives. The psychiatrist Hans Asperger would be pleased, for example, to know his surname is now used rather commonly, as in, "Oh dear, I think I married an Asperger."

As we understand the spectrum of conditions here, we become more accepting, and understanding. Teaching in a university, I can tell you we have more than the regular share of Aspergers, and that this makes life in the academe both exciting ("What a genius. She must be an Asperger.") and exasperating ("Can't he just shut up and let others speak? He must be an Asperger.")

The writing professions, print journalism included, also probably has a greater share of Aspergers, given the way you need to collect and collate facts and images in your head and transform them into an article, essay or novel. Yes, maybe even columnists, especially those who write about the strangest topics, maybe Aspergers.

Disorders or variations?Easy now. I know some of you are getting nervous, the way Aspergers sound like Martians. I can imagine people in offices suddenly asking each other, as they look to a colleague, "Is he or isn't he?"

I do worry that the medical profession, by attaching labels, may inadvertently stigmatize these conditions. There are debates, for example, about what Asperger's really is, with all kinds of alternative labels proposed: Is it a form of high-functioning autism? Or a form of attention-deficit disorder?

The term "disorder" makes me uneasy. Certainly, there are many autistic individuals who need medical and social services, but the nerds and geeks will manage quite well, thank you. In fact, I often tell my students that if all humans were "sosyal," too busy making friends and socializing, humanity would still be stuck in caves. We needed the introverted nerds and geeks retreating into their own worlds to reflect, and to discover fire and invent the first tools.

I'd suggest that by moving away from psychiatric labels with its connotations of medical treatment, we might be in a better position to find social niches for the whole range of autisms. BBC had a news item a few weeks back about a Danish man who had put up a computer programming firm that mainly hired autistics because of the way they could concentrate. It turned out the man has an autistic son, who he hopes will eventually work in that firm.
That is a more dramatic case of carving out a social niche for an autistic child. For families with autistics and Aspergers, a more basic need is to simply pass on some social skills. There are now quite a few books and websites offering advice for families to help autistics function better in society.

Autistics and Aspergers, for example, may have difficulties working with people because they seem selfish and mean, running all over people's feelings with unreasonable demands and blunt remarks. This could be avoided if, in childhood, an Aspergers learns there's a world of people out there who also have their needs, and that they will need to take extra effort to "read" people's feelings. How is this done? Even being conscious about looking into the eyes of a child with Aspergers while communicating is said to be vitally important in teaching some of the basic social skills.

We still have a lot of learn about autistic conditions, and as we learn more, we might come to accept these conditions as part of the variations that make humanity so interesting.

No comments: