The Best Stories Ever Written About People With Autism

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
April 28 2012 7:02 AM

The Longform Guide to Autism

The best stories about people on the spectrum.

An autistic boy.
The best stories about autism. Here, Quentin, an austistic boy in Virginia.

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s brand-new app.

Some people with autism have dynamic jobs that take advantage of their innate skills, and are acquainted with life’s pleasures, including love, hacking and golf. Many, however, live terrifically difficult lives, and are brutally stigmatized.

Amy Harmon • New York Times • December 2011

A young couple’s story:

“Jack, Kirsten noticed, bit his lips, a habit he told her came from not knowing how he was supposed to arrange his face to show his emotions. Kirsten, Jack noticed, cracked her knuckles, which she later told him was her public version of the hand-flapping she reserved for when she was alone, a common autistic behavior thought to ease stress.

"Their difficulty discerning unspoken cues might have made it harder to know if the attraction was mutual. Kirsten stalked Jack on Facebook, she later told him, but he rarely posted. In one phone conversation, Jack wondered, ‘Is she flirting with me?’ But he could not be sure.”

Amy Leal • Chronicle of Higher Education • October 2011

On a child diagnosed with autism:

“The worst part was that I knew he sensed it, too. In the same way that I know when he wants vegetable puffs or puréed fruit by the subtle pitch of his cries, I could tell that he also perceived the change—and feared it. At night he was terrified to go to bed, needing to hold my fingers with one hand and touch my face with the other in order to get the few hours of sleep he managed. Every morning he was different. Another word was gone, another moment of eye contact was lost. He began to cry in a way that was untranslatable. The wails were not meant as messages to be decoded; they were terrified expressions of being beyond expression itself.”

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John Donvan and Caren Zucker • Atlantic • October 2011

The long, happy, surprising life of 77-year-old Donald Gary Triplett, the first person ever diagnosed with autism:

"The fact is that Donald’s not a bad golfer: tee shots mostly on the fairway, passable short game, can nail a six-foot putt. His swing, however, is an unfolding pantomime, a ritual of gestures he seems compelled to repeat with almost every shot—especially when he really wants the ball to travel.

"He licks the fingers of his right hand, and then his left. Squaring himself to the ball, he raises his club skyward, until it’s straight up over his head, as if he were hoisting a banner. Sometimes he holds his arms up there for a long moment. Then he brings the club head back to earth, stopping not far from the ball, before taking it back up. He goes through a series of these backswings, picking up speed with each iteration until, stiff-legged, he inches forward to get his head over the ball. With one final stroke, he commits to contact. Crack! It’s gone, and Donald, bouncing up and down at the knees, peers down the fairway to see the result. As a swing, it’s the opposite of fluid. But it’s Donald’s own. And he never whiffs it.”

Andrew Solomon • New York • May 2008

Should autism be celebrated? A look at the neurodiversity movement:

“In many ways, the question is whether it’s the autistic people or their parents who are unhappy and need fixing. Often enough, the neurodiversity activists argue correctly, the parents of autistic children conflate their unhappiness with their children’s. Parents are in a tough place figuring out how to respond. What should be treated, and what left alone? Much of the debate hinges on divergent ideas of love. The vaccine people believe families who don’t accept their hypothesis are neglecting their children; the neurodiverse people believe parents who describe their autistic children as diseased are insulting them. Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH, told me, ’I’m at a point where I think that the parents probably know more than the scientists about autism, and I’ve heard families say, ‘I wouldn’t trade my child’s autism for anything; it’s been the best experience of my life.’ I admire that, but even so, if you could get rid of autism, I would say, go for it. There are plenty of other challenges in life that will make people miserable; let’s at least have people face them without having to wear diapers.”

Gary Anthes • Computerworld • April 1997

Autistic individuals have great difficulty breaking into many professions. One exception may be computer programming, where the difficulty of forming emotional attachments and communicating is not necessarily a problem.

“Peter Levy, an autistic programming veteran of 27 years and co-founder of Accent Technologies LLC in Wichita, Kan., shares a trait common to autistics: striking candor about his strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, he says, ’I can find software problems so fast it can make folks uneasy.’

"But, he adds, ’I'm almost completely asocial, can't read facial expressions or body language or social nuances well and probably don't use them well either. I have no particular relationship with any of my co-workers and am definitely not team-oriented.’ ”

David Kushner • IEEE Spectrum • July 2011

As part of his obsessive search for evidence of UFOs, Gary McKinnon worked his way into thousands of government computers. The U.S. charged him with terrorism. Doctors diagnosed him with Asperger’s.

“McKinnon had always been fascinated by outer space. A puckish, bright boy from Glasgow, he would ask his parents technical questions about the distance between planets and the scientific names of stars. ’It was the kind of stuff a toddler didn't usually talk about,’ McKinnon's mother, Janis Sharp, tells IEEE Spectrum. ’It was very unusual.’

But McKinnon's differences went far beyond his obsession with astronomy. Whenever Sharp took him on a bus, the boy would shout uncontrollably. By the age of 10, he had grown fearful of the outdoors and spent hours in his room devouring books on space or listening to music. When Sharp, a musician recently divorced and living with Gary in London, begged him to join the neighborhood kids outside, McKinnon would plead, "Please don't make me go out to play." The boy was troubled, but his obsessions seemed to give him a sense of control and peace. Though not a naturally gifted musician, he spent hours at the piano teaching himself to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and complicated Beatles songs. Sharp couldn't believe her ears. ’We were knocked out,’ she says.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.

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