Thursday, February 24, 2011

Not Even Wrong:

Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism
Paul Collins (2004, Bloomsbury)

In Paul Collins's latest book, Paul and Jennifer move back to Oregon (from Wales, where they were living in his Sixpence House) and take two-year-old Morgan for a check-up. He's a normal, healthy, toddler, they think, with a few unusual abilities--he can start up a computer and make it play games, and he can read books, the fatter and more abstruse the better. But, as the doctor notes, he never says, "Mommy" or "Can I have some popcorn?"; he doesn't make eye contact. To Collins, it's a bafflement: "How can it be that we left our house an hour ago with a healthy toddler, and returned with a disabled one?"

By trade a historian, Collins has a parallel story to tell. He has been nursing a fascination with Peter the Wild Boy, brought to England from the forests of Hanover by order of George I. Peter was smart enough to survive on wild foods, but had little use for language, or the ways of men. He was famous in his time, attracting the attention of Swift, Defoe, and Linnaeus; he was a prism for emerging ideas of what it was to be human.

If, as seems likely, Peter was what we would now term autistic, he represents a case study in how the disabilities of autism are, at the same time, hyperabilities. Collins investigates other strange but creative characters, including Alan Turing and the nerds of Microsoft. "Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result." Which still leaves the problem of communicating, of getting along in the social world. Imagine your whole life as a sort of Turing test, in which you have to use reason to process social information that most people can grasp without a second thought.

Paul and Jennifer, with some expert help, make overtures to Morgan using written language. There's a lovely Helen Keller moment when Morgan first answers a binary question from Paul, as he'd been doing with his computer games. It's a huge step in the right direction, as is the class Morgan is finally old enough for, at three and a half, with other kids like him. "There is no awkwardness among them: they are equals. It's as if we have brought a seal to the ocean and watched him shuffle awkwardly off the land to glide effortlessly through the waves, finally within the world he was made for all along."

Morgan's parents still have their work cut out figuring out what he needs, and how to keep him safe; they have to plan to have him living with them for the rest of their lives; but they know what they need to know about not pounding their square peg into a round hole, and it's going to be all right. Thanks be to God.


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