The news that the play adapted from that brilliant book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won seven Olivier awards on Sunday has caused me mixed feelings. When it was published 10 years ago, I was the 15-year-old sister to a nine-year-old boy who, like the novel’s protagonist, has an autistic spectrum disorder. Unlike the protagonist – a maths genius with a distinct voice – my little bro, now nearly 20, can’t really speak at all. He is missing that crucial component that allows you to join words together to form sentences; instead they float, rootless, in mid-air, and are almost entirely linked to needs and demands – “drink”, “swimming”, “book”.
The severity of my brother’s autism did not prevent me enjoying a novel about a character who, though less profoundly disabled, shares many of his traits – the tendency to obsess, the “does not compute” response to human emotions. I recall weeping through the book in the same way I did at the back of the class, aged 14, when we studied Flowers for Algernon, and then, a year later, Of Mice and Men. (It always felt unfair that the curriculum included not one, but two set texts with learning disabilities as their central theme. The person who decided that really put me through the wringer.) The latter was particularly comforting, because, for once, it didn’t portray a savant.
If there’s one facet of autism that has gripped the public imagination, it is that of the “idiot savant”, now referred to as high-functioning autism. I have lost count of the number of broadsheet articles about autistic geniuses, the most recent – “Is Jacob Barnett the next Einstein?” – a moving account of how a mother lovingly nurtured her son’s prodigious gift for physics. Another, a few weeks earlier, discussed “the Asperger’s effect”: how the syndrome has become “trendy”, particularly in tech communities. Though it doesn’t sound it, the issue was sensitively handled, but all I could think while reading it was how my own brother, and those like him, would never be described in such a way.
It’s a feeling that is all too common for the relatives of the profoundly autistic – the films, such as Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind (though autism is never explicitly specified in the latter), and the documentaries all feed into a narrative that has resulted in the public perception of autism becoming skewed. In fact, savants make up only 10% of people with autistic spectrum disorders and, while campaigners and academics are constantly pointing this out, the media and the public tend not to listen.
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