Two memoirs about autism.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 28 2007 1:16 PM

Inside Autism

What two memoirs can tell us about the disease du jour.

Click here to read more from Slate's Memoir Week.

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In fact, they are curiously akin: What Iverson and Tammet (and Tito and, it turns out, Dov as well) set their minds to, they will not be deterred from, despite distractions. In fact, they focus so intently precisely because there are so many stimuli clamoring for their attention as they tackle the difficult task of trying to communicate the experience of struggling to communicate. The passionate persistence they share helps push these memoirs well beyond broad-brush bromides about liberating trapped souls, to convey something of the daunting challenge of making connections. As Helen Keller proclaimed a century ago, the human urge, and capacity, to communicate is profoundly associational in every sense. The underlying drive is to extend individual experience beyond the immediately perceivable—"I wish to write about things I do not understand," Keller told Annie Sullivan very early on. The urge is also to share, and compare, experiences with others. And those experiences themselves take shape by being linked up with language in minds that are wired—perhaps no matter how tangled, or damaged, the wiring may be—to try to reach out not just to the world, but above all to other minds.

Indeed, the startling revelation of both memoirs is just that: There is reason to believe that autistic people do not lack, as cognitive psychologists have generally assumed they do, "theory of mind"—"any direct perception of other minds, or other states of mind," as Oliver Sacks puts it. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that some glimmer of a desire to work toward such a theory seems to be lurking there, whether the person is articulate Tammet or speech-deprived Tito or flailing Dov. These books suggest that the struggle to connect is born of a lonely initial discovery: that one's own mind is not like other minds. And so both Tammet and Iverson, through Tito, burrow into the bewildering details of skewed perceptions, conveying a dizzying hint of what wide variations there are in a condition that is at once utterly strange and yet not completely alien. To read Tammet's account of his childhood, which his intense visual memory summons up with uncanny immediacy, is to enter a landscape all but lost to most of us. Yet the obsessions, the disorientation, the private rituals that are writ so large for him—from the chestnuts he caresses to the silence, "soft and silvery," he seeks out, to the terrors of school sports he flees—send messages about "normal" development, too, without normalizing his own experience. They are reminders of the active labor required, from all of us, to construct a sense of a self in relation to others.

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Iverson's quest supplies a different jolt: a reminder of how hard it is, as adult perceivers and thinkers, to pick up on what goes against the grain of our expectations. Through her immersion in Tito's one-of-a-kind cognitive world—amid sensory overload, he relies on auditory signals, rather than "thinking in pictures," the "classic" autistic response described by Temple Grandin, the ur-memoirist of the disorder, and Tammet—Iverson is primed to be acutely aware of how much the rest of us take for granted, and miss as a result. Even neuroscientists. Wedded to their particular expertise and testing methods, the researchers she visits are often flummoxed in taking Tito's measure. They get frustrated by their vain efforts to make sense of his strange responses in terms of their own preconceptions. With an almost autistic obsession to explore the many anomalies of Tito's mind, Iverson herself actually accomplishes the hardest feat of empathy: She works from an acute awareness that none of us really knows what it is like to inhabit someone else's head, which serves as a goad to scrutinize and probe as tirelessly as possible.

And to listen. "Abstract should turn to concrete," Tito writes in a fragment called "My Learning," and he goes on: "Because life cannot just feed only on abstract. So my beginning to learn and express myself is a turning point in my life. I became aware that I was a part of my surroundings because I was a concrete thing in the world." I think Susan Sontag would approve of that diagnosis.