‘Did that man touch our car?’
My name is Nicholas. I am 11 years old. I like plants because they have a different life to humans, and they are attractive. They can’t defend themselves and, instead of having blood, they have chlorophyll. They can’t move. They grow towards the light. I feel proud when my plants do well.
I am afraid of dragonflies. I am afraid of jellyfish. I wish blackfly would leave my plants alone.
From babyhood, our son Nicholas regarded other children as a different species. As a toddler, he sat on my knee and showed no interest in playing with my friends’ children. I just thought he was shy and had a different character from my extrovert daughter, who is two years older. At the end of his first term at nursery school, his teacher told us she was worried that there was ‘something wrong’ with him. In the classroom, she said, he held his hands over his ears and screamed. If he did something naughty, he was put in the corridor, but he seemed to prefer being on his own. ‘I don’t like them,’ he said when 1 asked what he thought of the other children, and he imitated their high little voices. He wasn’t interested in toys, or in any kind of play that involved make-believe, though he liked to imitate conversations that had taken place between other people, and would repeat them again and again. He was, and is, a superb mimic (and can faultlessly hum a complicated tune he has heard only once).
His first ‘obsession’ started when he was two; it had to do with balloons. He looked for them everywhere, and when he saw one he always wanted to have it, even if it was one of the huge advertising balloons that sometimes hover over London. He sorted them into categories, giving them peculiar but logical names. ‘All March Down the Room’ party balloons made a squawking noise as they whizzed across the floor; ‘Fish’ balloons, made of helium, were shaped like fish; ‘Da da da da da’ balloons were ordinary round ones. The adored objects seemed to give him as much pain as pleasure. Well-meaning friends brought him packets of ordinary plastic balloons but initial delight would usually end in agitation and misery. He would scream at the adult to blow up the balloons, tie them, blow them up bigger, attach a string, pop them, rescue them from the ceiling. As he grew older, he blew up the balloons himself but ultimately became frustrated by this activity as well. At three, he was finally coaxed onto the stage of his nursery school’s Nativity Play by being given a light blue balloon on a string. In the school photograph we see him holding his talisman: he looks distant, other-worldly, as if in a dream. Lorna Wing writes about this other-worldliness in The Autistic Spectrum: [*]
It seems likely that there were children and adults with autistic disorders in all their manifestations long before these conditions were recognised and named. Perhaps they were the reason for the ancient legends of ‘fairy changeling’ children, in which fairies were believed to steal away a human baby and leave a fairy child in its place. In some versions of the story the changeling was remarkably beautiful but strange and remote from human kind.
[*] Constable, revised edition, 240 pp., £16.95. 25 March, 0 09 475160 9.
Vol. 18 No. 21 · 31 October 1996
Elisa Segrave’s welcome review of The Autistic Spectrum by Lorna Wing (LRB, 17 October) includes an account of her son Nicholas’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome on his 13th birthday. Segrave relates what appears to have been an astonishing leap of intuition on Nicholas’s part. Looking recently at photographs of his grandmother as a girl, following her own mother’s remarriage, he declared, ‘Your mother was away from love … Gladys wasn’t very nice to her daughter’ – an observation subsequently confirmed by an old friend of the family. I want, with due tentativeness, to query Segrave’s interpretation of Nicholas’s remarks. As the mother of a gifted son with Asperger’s Syndrome who was born in 1966, I can sympathise with the desire to find redeeming features amid the havoc wrought by the condition. Sufferers do manifest ‘splinter skills’ and ‘islets of ability’, notably in such domains as music, chess and mathematics, but it would be surprising indeed to find psychological insights among them.
Segrave mentions that Nicholas had been seeing a child psychoanalyst three times a week for five years, and also that he is a superb mimic. We will never know what took place in all those therapeutic sessions but I suspect that they are the source of Nicholas’s pronouncements about love and failures of niceness. Left to themselves, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely pass judgment on relationships, detect unspoken meanings or even give expression to their own affective states. Such silences are intrinsic to the condition. But we constantly ask them how they feel and why, and urge them to pour their hearts out, so, in their desire to expedite the interrogation, and with the aid of some advanced echolalia, they try to give us what we seem to want. For this reason, autobiographies by autistic authors which promise first-hand revelations should be read with caution, an eye for editorial interpolations and an ear for the echoes of the voice of the well-intentioned psychotherapist.
Vol. 18 No. 22 · 14 November 1996
I was interested to read the letter from Marion Glastonbury, who, like me, has a son with Asperger’s Syndrome (Letters, 31 October). She questions ‘with due tentativeness’ whether my son Nicholas’s intuitive remarks about my mother’s childhood might simply be the result of five years of psychotherapy – he gave this up 18 months ago – and ‘some advanced echolalia’, whereby the Asperger’s child, when asked about feelings, might ‘try to give us what we seem to want’. My reply to this is that there may be as many variations among those who have Asperger’s Syndrome as there are among ‘ordinary’ people. My son does not, for instance, appear to have the advanced mathematical ability or computer skills which many high-achieving Asperger’s children and adults possess. He does have a remarkable memory for specific incidents – remarks, sounds – that occurred years ago, and he often recalls their exact date.
I realise that there is a risk in over-emphasising ‘intuition’ and in assuming too readily that an Asperger’s child can put himself in another person’s shoes and interpret sophisticated human behaviour. The risk is that we then ignore the very real difficulties that they have each day, in areas the rest of us take for granted. (To give a random sample of incidents that troubled my son last week: was a bus conductor hostile, was a child smiling or grimacing, was the man who told him not to hit his sofa ‘disturbed’ or ‘aggressive’?) On the other hand, and at the risk of sounding like a doting mother, here are a few remarks that my son made last September, during one week abroad. I wrote them down. ‘You’re tough with some people and weak with other people. It’s your personality. You use your toughness up on the wrong people, my father, for instance.’ ‘You had a mad crush on your own father. He wasn’t that nice to you. He didn’t give you any moral support either.’ On a possible suitor: ‘He would not entertain your imagination at all.’