‘Did that man touch our car?’

Elisa Segrave

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.

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[*] Constable, revised edition, 240 pp., £16.95. 25 March, 0 09 475160 9.