It’s been 25 years since “Rain Man,” and while that was a pretty good film, the most you can say is that it provides a starting point for thinking and talking about autism. Between Jenny McCarthy spreading misinformation about a vaccine-caused autism epidemic, and others wondering aloud about a cure (which our own Kristina Chew ably swats down), the general public (and I place myself in this group) has plenty more to learn and digest about this disorder.
Most of us won’t become experts, but understanding leads to empathy, and empathy is a great start. And if you know me, you know that if I want to understand something, I read. So, to that end, I want to suggest three thought-provoking novels that explore this subject.
1) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: This is probably the title that most readers will have heard of. From UK writer Mark Haddon, this novel takes the rare first-person perspective of a teenaged boy who is strongly implied to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum (though a precise diagnosis doesn’t appear in the text itself). Through the writer’s insightful writing, we get a fascinating glimpse inside the head of the type of person who is too frequently characterized as an alien in the media (consider Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”).
The 15-year-old narrator-protagonist is being raised by a loving, but very imperfect father, while attending a specialized, and also very imperfect school. A huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, he believes he is narrating the story of his own great detective adventure, the mystery of a murdered neighborhood dog. In fact, it’s a story about family, forgiveness and getting on in life.
2) The Speed of Dark: When I was in high school, my absolute favorite book was Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon.” I didn’t think that subject matter could be revisited and done justice, but that’s what Elizabeth Moon managed with her award-winner “The Speed of Dark” half a century later, replacing that book’s mentally-handicapped hero with a brilliant but socially-challenged one.
The story follows Lou, a high-functioning autistic in a very near future society (a decade or two ahead of us, at most). He works with other autistics in a company department that utilizes their mathematical abilities to do things in pattern recognition that neither supercomputers nor ordinary individuals could accomplish.
Near the outset of the book, it’s revealed that new research is suggesting a cure for autism, a radical treatment which turns out to be nothing less than a complete rewiring of the entire brain. Lou and his friends must decide whether they will decide to take the treatment or continue to live as they have, with the added challenge that, for Lou, a secret part of his life involves socializing with non-autistics, including one woman for whom he harbors feelings of love.
This book is incredibly heart-wrenching, and features all sorts of individuals who interact with Lou in very different ways. There are the quietly heroic, who come to his aid, and the downright villainous, who feel justified in making his life a living hell. Through it all, he keeps asking himself, would it be easier if he simply took the treatment and became someone else?
Readers will likely be divided on the very suggestion of “curing” this disorder, and on what Lou’s choice should be. But I love this book, I love Lou, and I think if you read it, you’ll love him, too. And that’s why I’m recommending it.
3) Existence: This recent novel by David Brin, who specializes in space opera, is hard science fiction, set further in the future than “The Speed of Dark” and tackles big, species-defining issues, like whether we will survive in the coming centuries, and whether we are alone in the universe. Characterization is somewhat secondary here.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting thoughts about the future of people everywhere along the autistic spectrum. In a world that is becoming increasingly technological and increasingly connected, Brin wonders (in one sub-plot of the book) if some of the social difficulties autistic people currently face will tend to become less and less of an issue, and whether they might indeed prove the fittest in an analytical, online world. Maybe self-described “auties” fit better in society as it is fast becoming than the “normals” who have been outpaced by their own rapid progress.
What draws my attention here is an implicit recognition of how subjective the idea of normal is. Deviancy is defined as literally a deviation from the norm, where the norm itself is nothing more than an averaging out of what’s found in our population now, a baseline that can and will shift over time. It’s true that autistic people have certain difficulties operating within contemporary society, but since society is itself a fluid thing, we can equally say that most modern societies currently have difficulty working with autistic people.
This isn’t merely wordplay. I’m suggesting that society can change to better fit the talents and needs of exceptional people (and I use the word “exceptional” here as a value-neutral modifier, in its broadest, oldest sense), just as exceptional people can, with tailored education, better operate within that society. In fact, most of us are exceptional in one way or another, all of us have different strengths and weaknesses, and I doubt there is a single person who is exactly, in every conceivable dimension, 100 percent average. A more flexible, individualized approach to things like education, work placement and social services would probably benefit everybody.
Only three books? I’ll bet you can do better than that. Give your suggestions in the comments.
Image credit: Del Rey.