Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Autism and The Curious Incident

I just finished reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which has an autistic (asperger's, I think) narrator. I enjoyed the book and found the narration very convincing - not that I know much about autism and was judging it on that basis, but more that I was convinced the narrator was a real person relating his actual experiences. I also solved a small mystery myself before the narrator did, which does not usually happen when I read mysteries, so that was good.

Afterwards, I was looking at the reviews on Amazon, and, as I sometimes do, I decided to look at the one-star reviews. When I'm reading reviews for their intended purpose, I find I can often learn more about a book (bad and good things) by reading the negative reviews, and I was curious what I would see here.

What I found was a curious dichotomy. Many people objected to the book's portrayal of autism, and they fell into two distinct categories:
  • People with Asperger's ("aspies"), and a few parents thereof, claiming, "Autism isn't like that. It's not nearly that bad."
  • Parents of autistic children claiming, "Autism isn't like that. It's much worse."
For instance, one reviewer writes
Having lived and worked with people with Asberger's syndrome (the type of autism Christopher Boone [the narrator] supposedly has) and having a mild case of it myself, I can confirm that the title of my review, sadly, is true. Instead of turning the narrator into someone we feel was a genuine Aspie, Mark Haddon has taken a fifteen-year-old boy younger than his years and given him the stereotypical traits of autism. He's also exaggerated them greatly; when I read the parts where Christopher says that he feels sick if he thinks about telling a lie, or if something in his living room is rearranged, or if he's in a crowd, I thought I must have been seeing things. I'm also not keen on the way, every second chapter, we have information about Christopher's problems rammed down our throats. A normal autistic or Aspie wouldn't do that, and it makes the book seem like a thinly-disguised fact book.
Another ("Catherine") writes

Since I have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, let me just say that Mark Haddon should spend some time interacting with individuals who have Asperger Syndrome. The character he has created is not an Aspie, it is a sick coagulation of characteristics that span the broad range of autism all thrown together and labeled by him as "Asperger" because he needs his character to be gifted enough to write a book.

Most people with Asperger Syndrome lead very normal lives and are able to learn to function and interact in society. I'll admit that I would much rather sit and read a book then go to a party, but I wouldn't sit and read this book. I couldn't finish it because the portrayal was so upsetting, and the foul language was overwhelming. It is this kind of trash that makes life for people with Asperger so difficult, and increases the misunderstanding that society has for us. If you really want to understand how a person with Asperger thinks and feels then talk to one of us, or look up information on the internet. Don't go to a fictional book written by an uneducated author.
A third says

I find it hard to believe that Mark Haddon is an autism expert, because Christopher Boone isn't like any other child with Asperger's that I've ever met. We aren't all innocent and naive...on the contrary, we're often very aware of what's going on around us. We don't all talk and act like little children. We can usually realise if what we're doing is upsetting other people. We don't all have to go to specialist schools and need constant help from our support workers just to get through the day. We aren't so eccentric that we judge what our days are going to be like from how many cars we see on the road to school. We don't waffle on about frivilous things like maths problems and our favourite books. Haddon obviously thinks we do, and that shows us just how much he knows about people with Asperger's. As soon as I realised that Christopher was a stereotypical person with Asperger's, I could tell straight away that the book was going to make a reference to us being unable to cope with change, and indeed it did. Only it was worse than I had expected...the book made the implication that, if the slightest thing around us changes, we become dizzy and feel sick. I'd thought I'd misread it at first, but I hadn't. Of course, millions of people around the world will now think that's how we all act. Is it any wonder the attitude towards people with Asperger's has changed so much recently?
A parent ("JB"), on the other hand, says
Granted this is fiction. Granted that autism is a spectrum disorder. People with autism vary from mildly afflicted to profoundly afflicted, but if I wanted to get an insight into the autistic mind, this book is off course.

The child in this book would be classed as extremely high functioning. Not as a kids with autism. Aspergers, almost definately. ANd believe me, there are huge differences between Aspergers and autism. Aspies can talk. Aspies can write. Autism is different. Read Making Peace with Autism by Susan Senator for a real glimpse of autism.

For me, a mom with a child with autism, if my child could grow up to be this high functioning, I would be thrilled. This is written by a writer who thinks he has a handle on what autism is. He should come spend a week at our house, or any of the others that I know who have kids with real autism.
Mataja K writes

I hated this book. However, you may like it if you don't actually know much about autism and you've never lived with an autistic person. As someone who's done both, I find it nauseous becuase it's a growing trend of fictionalizing and heroizing what is a debilitating disease that as of yet has no cure. If you want to dismiss the seriousness of autism, read this book! It gives the protagonist waaaay more logic and order and an extraordinarily higher IQ than most autistic persons have. In essence, this is a "theory of autistics" fiction book, not an actual account and shouldn't be taken as anything more than a way for non-autistic people to pretend that they understand more than we do about the autistic world. The fact is the autistic world doesn't make sense, and they wouldn't be giving you these detailed explanations as if they're Plato or Aristotle or some other philosopher who's just rattling this off the top of their head. For those who choose to read it, remember this is fiction, not fact, and it was not written by someone who is autistic, and however much he knows, the fact is that autism is infinitely more incomprehensible, disturing, and debilitating that this book will let you know.

Presumably there are positive reviews where people said the depiction of Asperger's or autism was dead on. I just thought the dichotomy between people who said it was too positive and people who said it was too negative was interesting. I guess it makes sense that autistic people who write Amazon reviews are mostly more functional than Chris (though I could easily imagine him reviewing a book online), while parents with less-functional autistic kids are more motivated around autism than those with high-functioning teenage or adult kids.

But I also think (uninformedly, perhaps), from what I've read by aspie writers in the neurodiversity crowd, that, at least for aspies, life makes a lot more sense from the inside than it seems to from the outside. Adults seem to describe a lot of situations where their bizarre childhood behavior actually made sense in ways that they weren't able (or didn't think) to communicate to their parents or teachers.

For instance, one guy said that haircuts actually hurt him physically as a child, thus his screaming made sense and he was not reassured by being told they did not hurt, which contradicted his experience. Having atypical experiences that those around you do not believe in is bound to make you seem crazy, so if you are unable to recognize people by their faces, or if particular sounds or sights easily overwhelm your sensory processing, or if your mind is different enough that you tend to make different assumptions from those around you, you might seem much more erratic and bizarre than you would to, say, someone who experienced the world in the same basic way. (For instance, screaming in surprise at a very loud clap of thunder might make you seem bizarre/crazy/unruly to an alien with a limited sense of hearing.)

One of the ideas people have about autistics is that they are "mind blind" - they don't really "get" that other people have their own minds and perspectives, and thus aren't able to correctly predict the state of other people's knowledge or how they might respond to things. I have heard some aspies claim that this is not true, and that instead it is only that autistics think differently and expect others to think the same way as they do, and counter that neurotypical folks read the minds of austistic people just as incorrectly, so that it is more like two alien species interacting with each other, not that one side or the other has a particular deficit. (I don't know which perspective is correct.)

Anyway, just some musings.


Sally said...

I find that I am not overwhelmingly convinced by these reports of individuals with Asperger's / parents of autistic children on whether the portrayal is "accurate." There appears to be a lot of "I / my child is not like that, therefore, that is not a depiction of True Asperger's / autism," which assumes that these things manifest themselves in a single way (and also that these people's perceptions of themselves / their kids is fully accurate in some sense that invalidates the descriptions in the book).

Of course, I also understand that it could be very frustrating to read a book that you think (however rightly or wrongly) grossly misportrays some condition that you have and that you feel contributes to other people misunderstanding it.

I recall liking the book and finding the narration in convincing in the same way Tam did. Knowing even less than Tam does about autism, I also did not think of it in terms of whether the character seemed typical or representative of an autistic child or "aspie" or some other established category.

Tam said...

Yeah, on the one hand, I don't expect every woman in a book to be like me, and don't (generally) go around saying, "Women are not like that!" But autistics are represented rarely enough that it may irk them (and those who love them) extra when they're (as they perceive it) grossly caricaturized.

Who I found really unconvincing is the moms who said "Autistics are much lower functioning than that in reality." There is clearly a whole spectrum (um, yeah, "the autism spectrum") from "completely dsyfunctional retarded autistic who can barely communicate" to high-functioning sorts who just come off as a bit dorky or eggheaded.

I found the character, as a person, completely convincing. I believe that could be a real person's real experiences.