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.

The world's richest man, Bill Gates, has informally been diagnosed with it. Chloe O'Brian, the senior computer analyst on 24, one of television's biggest hits, is thought by most fans to have it. Asperger's syndrome, a term coined in 1981 to denote a high-functioning form of autism first described in the 1940s, surged into public consciousness along with computers: "I think all tech people are slightly autistic," Douglas Coupland writes in Microserfs (1995).At the mild end of a fuzzy spectrum of developmental disorders that strike at communication and social skills, the "engineers' disease" has been invested with some of the romantic glow of cutting-edge creativity once accorded to insanity: Here are society's super-information processors. Meanwhile, at the other end of the autistic spectrum, the much more profound isolation associated with severe autism has inspired anti-technological paranoia: Mercury in childhood vaccines, many anguished parents believe, is turning responsive babies into unreachable children at an epidemic rate.

I'm not the first to suggest that if Susan Sontag were alive, she might well sigh that in autism, the information age has seized on its "master illness," her phrase in Illness as Metaphor for the disease that comes to serve as a repository of "punitive or sentimental fantasies" about contemporary society. (Think TB and cancer.) Our impulse to mythologize disease, she warned, all too readily fuels a moralizing impulse that does nothing to cure social ills, let alone disease. Yet two recent memoirs suggest that autism might prove to be a disorder that also invites another response: a demystifying impulse—a dogged effort to decipher the bewildering anomalies of very unusual brains. A reprieve from facile diagnoses of high-tech-era victims or heroes would certainly be welcome. And it seems, well, metaphorically appropriate that the disorder that would inspire such unillusioned treatment is a condition often marked by obsession with details and trouble grasping the big picture.

Advertisement

On the face of it, Daniel Tammet, the author of the current best seller Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir,and Portia Iverson, who recently wrote Strange Son: Two Mothers, Two Sons, and the Quest To Unlock the Hidden World of Autism, don't look much like coolheaded candidates for the job of probing an elusive neurological disorder. In outline, their books follow the sentimental arc of heartwarming therapeutic tales. "It is my hope that I can help other young people living with high-functioning autism … to feel less isolated and to have confidence in the knowledge that it is ultimately possible to lead a happy and productive life," writes Tammet, a 28-year-old British "autistic savant" lately diagnosed with Asperger's. When he breaks free of the rote self-help prose, he unveils an almost surreal perspective. His synesthetic mind is crowded with colorful numbers, which he perceives as having personalities and shapes that shift to help him do computational and memory feats (like recite pi to 22,514 digits, a world record). They help him figure out emotions, too. "If a friend says they feel sad or depressed, I picture myself sitting in the dark hollowness of number 6 to help me experience the same sort of feeling and understand it." Words also come in colors for Tammet, and thoughts unfold as visual associations that can send him careering off on tangents.

Iverson isn't exactly a calmly linear thinker, either. She is a woman with a cause: She founded the parents' advocacy organization Cure Autism Now with her husband in 1995 after the birth of their severely autistic son, Dov. And she declares herself a believer in miracles on the first page of a book that builds to a made-for-movie discovery toward the end. In between, she recounts her experiences with Tito Mukhopadhyay, a severely autistic boy reared in India. His mother, Soma, laboriously taught him to read, write, and communicate using an alphabet board—an achievement Iverson wanted to learn about for her own son's sake. Iverson was even more intent, though, on tapping Tito's unique expressive skills (he's also a creative writer, producing poetry and prose) to help scientists make sense of how autistic brains actually work, and re-examine beliefs about barricaded sufferers. She breathlessly describes tracking down 12-year-old Tito and Soma, getting them to the United States, and then dragging them from lab to lab for tests. Her account is charged with a missionary energy that is as unusual, in its way, as Tammet's phenomenal memory.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 9:19 PM The Phone Call Is Twenty Minutes of Pitch-Perfect, Wrenching Cinema
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.