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.

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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.

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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.

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