The Curious Insidiousness of the ‘autistic spectrum’.


This blog post is my review of a review of my review of the award-winning novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, which is a book that I haven’t actually read. Confused yet?… Excellent.

Let me clear a few things up. Firstly, when I say I haven’t read that book, what I mean is I haven’t finished it yet. I am severely dyslexic and I’m clutching at that straw as my excuse. I don’t think it’s a particularly bad excuse. Not if you could appreciate how difficult fiction reading is for people like me. I’ll plough on with the book, and when I reach the last page, I may write another review. A better one. Anyway,…

I won’t name the critic who dismissed my defense of that book. Partly that is because I don’t want anyone to be intimidated into pretending they like something they don’t. This critic said she thought many who praised the book were only jumping on a bandwagon – the Emperor’s new clothes syndrome. No one should feel they have to pretend to like something if they don’t. Everyone must be free to disagree. However, those who take issue have to be prepared for robust defense by the other side. And, with all due respect, the fact the reviewer admits to skipping parts may partly explain why she didn’t get as much out of it as she could have.

The book is popular clearly because it is laugh-out-loud funny. But humor is a personal thing, and this critic didn’t get the jokes. Fair enough.

But what I argued in an email was dismissed as potentially dangerous. If I had argued what this critic said I argued, I’d agree with her, but I was actually arguing the exact opposite. And that is why I am taking the cudgels up once more, writing this defense of myself in this blog.

What I am writing here is not so much literary criticism/praise for what I concede is a wonderful book, that part of the book which I already have under my belt. What I am trying to do here is flesh out the case I made in a series of emails and tweets, parts of which were read out. That program, by the way, was BBC Radio Scotland’s wonderful Janice Forsyth Show, which is now on every Monday to Thursday between 2:00pm to 4:00pm, a program which is one of the best things broadcast anywhere in the United Kingdom, radio or telly, as far as I am aware.

Janice read out some of my thoughts, and I appreciate that. Since I didn’t convince at least one of the reviewers of Curious Incident, I want to make that case again. And I hope to convince as many people as possible that the model of an ‘autistic spectrum’ comes nowhere close to addressing the complexity of those who are being lumbered with this label of ‘autism’.

What is a spectrum? The narrator of Curious Incident knows. He knows because he thinks like a scientist. Alas, he needs help to switch off his scientific mode to embrace a more poetic one, one that infers things from context, from body language and facial expressions. Most young scientists do that as soon as they reach adolescence as hormones teach them there are more things in heaven and their pants that the curvature of space time and related cosmological gubbins. Then they can woo members of the opposite sex, possibly their own  – maybe both – with poetry and all that lovey-dovey crap.

The electromagnetic spectrum, as Christopher could explain, refers to waves that all travel at the speed of light. One number is all you need to identify anything on that spectrum. Wavelength gives you frequency, and vice versa.

The model of an ‘autism spectrum’ is intended to grade everyone as more than or less than all the seven billion humans who currently walk planet Earth, and those who ever existed in the past, including obvious autistic people such as Sir Isaac Newton. Is a spectrum with a single dimension a great model for handing out this label? Absolutely not.

Janice read out my putting it to Mark Haddon in a twitter exchange that an autistic spectrum is far too limiting as it grades everyone with a single number, which is clearly nonsensical as there are many criteria and some score high on some, low on others. Mark agrees with me that a multidimensional matrix makes far more sense. That, for instance allows for the fact that my own symptoms overlap in a few areas with Christopher’s, but not at all in others that are supposed to be key characteristics of those with this condition.

Unfortunately, having heard that both myself and Mark Haddon rejected the narrowness of this spectrum model, the critic of the book went on to accuse us of saying that this book explains what everyone on this so-called spectrum has to be like. I said the exact opposite. And so does Mark.

I was accused of arguing something dangerous for suggesting that everyone on this non-existent autism ‘spectrum’ were little more than clones of each other. I was accused of suggesting that this is why I thought Mark Haddon should consider his book a resource for those with the label, as should their parents, extended family, community, school chums, everyone. I can’t get too angry at my critic for accusing me of this given that Mark himself failed to see the point I was getting at.

Mark didn’t offer anyone a clinical analysis of those with a condition partly because he did no research. But he has written a believable account of the popular image of what many of these people are assumed to be like, at least on the surface, as they appear to those of us on the outside.

But what Mark actually did was something much more than this. He humanized what might otherwise be a stereotype, opening up their interior lives, proving to us that there is someone in there after all.

Christopher Boone is an individual who needs to be appreciated for who he is, not because he is a member of an autistic community who has specific communications problems. He is one of us and deserves to be helped to be everything he can be, someone who can contribute his highly valuable gifts to society. My critic might not care about how such scientists think, but if it wasn’t for this she would not be on twitter, as there would be no world wide web, no internet, no computer, no telecommunications, no GPS, indeed no architecture for her to keep herself warm.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a valuable resource partly for reminding us that Christoper is who he is for reasons of nurture as well as nature. He has relationships with his mother, his father, at least one teacher who understand him and cares for him, neighbors, a pet rat, all the dogs in the world. They all make him who he is. These humans all suffer from frailties, and they all make bad choices from time to time, cutting corners, lying for what they tell themselves are good reasons (little white lies) only to find that these untruths have done more harm than good. Accidents happens, and Christopher is often the victim.

Christopher is a victim of abuse,of malicious bullying, and of misunderstanding built upon a foundation of society’s prejudice against people like him, which is sad. Very, very sad. Don’t you have to have a heart of stone to read how Christopher made a get-well card for his mother with an art teacher with 9 red cars because this was going to be a VERY VERY GOOD DAY, and to find the very next sentence tell us his father told him his mother had just died? Christopher often seems to have the emotional maturity of a very young child. How can you not cry at such moments?

Are Christopher’s so-called long-winded explanations ‘annoying’? For some people they no doubt are. But they didn’t ‘pad out’ Mark Haddon’s book as this critic insisted. What they did was teach us how people like Christopher think. A great deal of the time, it is how I think. I suspect it might be how I used t think most of the time when I was the same age as Christopher, or a few years younger.

Janice said that I’m someone who has the condition. Actually, what I am is someone who has a diagnosis. But it is not one I have ever fully embraced. A student was trusted to oversee tests, but she screwed up about four or more of the key ones. I hold her largely responsible for the professional who digested the raw material to draw entirely the wrong conclusions. Over half a century of my life has been wasted over this. What a total shambles.

People who were paid to help me have simply been far too busy and self-absorbed to actually listen to what I’m telling them. They have their one-dimensional ‘spectrum’ model, and are not about to let a whippersnapper like me challenge someone with a professional qualification. Hope you’re pleased with yourselves, because I’m not.  And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one whose life has been crushed by trying to fit us into a box when we simply don’t belong there.

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