Have you ever read Tony Attwood’s cure for autism? This leading ASD expert has a simple theory, which he outlined in ‘The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome’:
“If you are a parent, take your child with Aspergers’ syndrome to his or her bedroom. Leave the child alone in the bedroom and close the door behind you as you walk out of the room. The signs of Asperger’s syndrome in your son or daughter have now disappeared.”
Who’d have thought it was so simple? Attwood’s argument is that one of the main aspects of ASD is the inability to engage in what we might consider ‘normal’ social interaction, and that once left in solitude, the Aspergers disappears because the need to adhere to the expected norms of interaction disappears too. My take on this is that it is the outside world’s perception of what is normal and not normal that dictates our attitudes to autism. We have accepted ways of doing things and accepted behaviour, and those who step outside what is expected are branded as outsiders and (horrible word) abnormal. To which I would ask the question, who wants to be normal anyway?
My son is autistic. This means he does not meet the normal, expected profile of a child his age. His behaviour, his way of understanding, his communication and his development are not like those of his classmates. He does not fit the mould. This is not immediately apparent when spending time with B or observing him on his own (as Attwood suggested). However, it is immediately apparent the moment he is put with his peers. We’ve been to a classmates birthday party today. Surrounded by his peers, B looks completely typical (except that he is outstandingly beautiful-sorry, hugely biased. But it’s true.). However, listen closely and you’ll start to hear the difference. One four-year old struck up a conversation with me at the party. This in itself was surprising, as B does not really do this, despite his recent speech development and progress. Furthermore, the child was incredibly articulate and expressive and loquacious. And bloody depressing. I had to ask how old he was, even though I knew the answer was the same age as my son. This child and my son are world’s apart in terms of their ability to communicate: a difficult and uncomfortable truth, but one that I have to face. I looked at the other children playing together, eating together and enjoying each other’s company and the social occasion. And there’s my son, lost in his own little world, alone. I do not let myself cry over my son’s autism, but at times like this I’m not far off.
But whilst B may not be able to participate in this way, I know that he has many strengths and abilities that mark him out as, if not normal, then very special. Reading again through the Help! Parent’s Manual again this week, I came across the following list of Some common strengths in children with ASDs:
- not following the crowd
- being happy in their own company
- having a different way of seeing the world
- possessing an unusual sense of humour
- having an ability to concentrate on one topic
- extensive knowledge in their area of interest
- being more honest and open
- showing attention to detail
- having a good factual memory
- having a strong sense of justice
- displaying fewer social inhibitions
Almost all of these characteristics could be applied to my son. In particular, his encyclopedic knowledge of area’s of interest. A few weeks ago I cautiously attributed his interest in countries, capitals and flags to his almost permanent engagement with them. If it’s all you think about, no wonder you know so much about it, I argued. Now though, I wonder if I was right, because his ability to name, recognise, recall and recount these things is, in fact, incredible. His recognition of flags of the world has to be seen to be believed and his knowledge of capital cities goes way, way beyond what might be expected. Recently I downloaded a ‘name the flag’ game to my phone and challenged my four-year old genius to a contest. I was delighted with my score of twenty correct answers in a row. My four-year old son beat me with a score of forty. He’s since gone on to score ninety-seven.
Two points on the list that I have found particularly thought-provoking are, ‘not following the crowd’ and ‘having a different way of seeing the world’. As a younger man, particularly when I was at college and university, these were ideas and values that had a strong influence over the person I was and how I saw myself. I did not want to be like everyone else- I wanted to follow a different path, a more interesting path. The middle of the road is a safe place to be, but veer off course and you find more interesting people and experiences there.
Now of course I’m about as conventional as they come- a school teacher with a mortgage. I spend my days expecting young people to conform to the rules of normality set out by their establishment of learning. As a teacher of English I have more chance than most to encourage individuality and personal expression but, if I’m honest, there is little tolerance for difference in what I do. This is a shame because, as much as my attitude at college was down to youthful naivety and a fanciful view of life, I think something’s been lost. And yet, when I think about the things I still love in this world- the music, films and books that inspire and entertain me- I realise that they come from imaginations that have a different way of looking at the world, that do not conform to expectations of ‘normal’ but instead take a sideways look at things. I might be square, but there’s still a part of me that embraces the weird and the wonderful and those outside the norm.
So I stand by my question. Who wants to be normal anyway? Why be like everyone else when you can be as unique and brilliant as the boy who calls me Daddy? I don’t need to cry, because it is a privilege to know this child.
I will let the final word go to the very person who first recognised, and gave his name to, the condition that has baffled society ever since. Many of his observations still inform our understanding of high functioning autism and Aspergers to this day, not least the following statement:
‘Not everything that steps out of line, and thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be ‘inferior’. Hans Asperger (1938).