We seem fascinated currently, by what goes on inside the heads of people who are afflicted with the various disorders on the autistic spectrum. We read articles in the newspapers by mothers with autistic children. We speculate whether these disorders are on the increase in our society or if they are simply better diagnosed. We wonder what ‘causes’ them – is autism the result of brain damage, or even a terrible by-product of the MMR jab? Secretly and rather guiltily we might wonder if bad mothers ‘cause’ autism in their children. Now two groundbreaking books – one the autobiography of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome and the other a children’s novel whose hero has autism – have been published. What insights do they provide? Meg Errington explores.
It is difficult to hear or to read descriptions of what it feels like to ‘be autistic’ since autistic children appear to live in a world of their own and often do not speak or relate to anyone. That is why Luke Jackson’s Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence is so unusual and so remarkable. Luke suffers from Asperger Syndrome, a disorder described as being on the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum. He wrote his book when he was 13 years old as an attempt to offer us some insight into what it is like to suffer from something he describes as ‘a communication disorder’. Luke does not attempt to offer any explanations or causes, but with remarkable fluency he documents what it is like to be him and what his life is like. Mark Haddon approaches his novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in a similar way. Without offering explanations or trying to find causes for autistic disorders, he writes and sees through the eyes of Christopher, a 15-year-old boy suffering from what we assume is a higher functioning kind of autism. Reading these two books together it is striking to see how similar they are. Mark Haddon clearly understands the nature of the concerns and dilemmas explained by Luke Jackson and he explores them with great sensitivity in his novel. Both books struggle with the paradox of how those with ‘communication disorders’ find language to communicate this disorder.
Rituals and habits
Luke has three brothers and three sisters and his two younger brothers suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and Autism respectively. He describes his extended family as being ‘immune sensitive’. His mother is acutely sensitive to certain smells and sounds so she cannot bear the cinema. His aunt suffers from chronic asthma, hay fever and a multitude of allergy problems. All the children in the Jackson family suffer from these immune and allergy problems in varying degrees and Luke points out that this is a phenomenon of autistic families. In order to survive, the family has worked hard at desensitising themselves and building up immunity to experiences the rest of us take for granted but which the family finds hard to bear, such as the sound of school bells or the smell of paint or the texture of sand. Luke gives details of useful websites and organisations at the back of his book which might help others in a similar situation.
Luke describes the strategies he has devised to protect himself from being overwhelmed. These take the form of ritualistic behaviour and the kinds of compulsions which we have come to associate with autism. Luke carried pencils around with him for years, he could not be without them and they helped him to feel safe. He explains that the need for order and structure and rituals and habits protects sufferers from overwhelming anxiety. Now to calm himself Luke gazes at lamps. He is particularly fond of lava lamps as the movements soothe him. In common with many Asperger’s sufferers, he loves his computer which seems to offer security and protection.
Protection from terror and anxiety
It might be difficult for us to understand the quality of terror and anxiety from which Luke works so hard to protect himself. As a psychotherapist, I am in the habit of looking for causes and psychoanalysis can offer many theories which explain and account for his baffling disorder. However, reading about Luke’s fascination with lava lamps reminded me of the work of the psychoanalyst Esther Bick*. She was an early pioneer in child development who wrote about the importance that skin contact has in early development in helping babies to overcome primitive life and death terrors. She observed many babies in interaction with their mothers. Babies who were not being held by their mothers or who were particularly frightened would focus on sensory stimuli like lights or the sound of the washing machine to soothe them. Bick describes such children as growing up intensely conservative and terrified of change. They would develop modes of compulsive behaviour which she described as a ‘second skin formation’. Luke’s gazing at lava lamps and his need for soothing rituals seem something like an attempt at constructing a thicker skin to protect himself from the moments when life becomes an overwhelming influx of stimuli and sensation.
The autistic savant
Christopher, Haddon’s fictional character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is also prone to experiences of sensory overload and seemingly irrational terrors – he cannot bear to be touched, not even by his parents, and will allow them only to touch the palm of his hands. Christopher seems fiercely protective of his skin boundary. New teachers at his special school terrify him. However Christopher is going to take his maths A-level at the age of 15 and will probably get an A. He understands prime numbers, has a photographic memory and he can understand and demonstrate The Monty Hall problem – a maths problem which has defeated many of the world’s mathematical experts. His favourite author is Conan Doyle. He likes mystery stories because they are like puzzles which he can figure out. And he is writing a novel – a mystery story about who killed Wellington the dog next door.
The autistic savant fascinates us. In the film The Rain Man the actor Dustin Hoffman plays the part of an autistic man who is a mathematical genius and who, like Christopher, possesses a precocious mathematical and philosophical intelligence which is completely at odds with his helplessness when it comes to feelings and relationships – something Luke Jackson also conveys to us. People with Asperger seem defined by the experience of feeling like Doctor Spock, the character from Star Trek who was bewildered by emotion and emotional people and who approached the world in a literal and rational way. Here is Christopher on love:
‘Father said, “Christopher you do understand that I love you?”
And I said “Yes,” because loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble and looking after them and telling them the truth and father looks after me when I get into trouble like coming to the police station, and he looks after me by cooking meals for me, and he always tells me the truth which means he loves me.’
We sense that Christopher cannot feel love even if he can define it. And that like Luke, he seems to experience not feelings but things less defined, sensations, which are more primitive and diffuse states of terror and safety like those we imagine Esther Bick’s babies were experiencing.
A fragile sense of selfhood
Christopher’s first person narrative disguises his problems with communication and fragile selfhood just as his mathematical and philosophical precocity disguises his very primitive terrors and functions as a kind of second skin. He survives by mimicking ordinary interactions. ‘I did chatting,’ he says when he talks to a neighbour. Jokes he cannot ‘do’ or understand easily.
It is not that Christopher sees through the sentimentality and hypocrisy of ordinary human interaction; it is more that he lacks what the psychoanalyst Winnicott would have called ‘the necessary illusion’ which helps us to relate to others and to survive. Through his ‘Martian’ eyes we are forced to see the world in a different way and to re-examine taken for granted truths – not least that language is always an adequate medium to convey reality. At one point in the novel Christopher tells us that his name is a metaphor. His mother has explained to him that it was the name given to St Christopher because he carried Jesus Christ across a river:
‘…but I don’t want my name to mean a story about being kind and helpful. I want my name to mean me.’
This fragile sense of selfhood and what seems like a permanent fear of imminent annihilation – like the newborn’s sense of the fragility of life itself – seem central to those who suffer from these autistic syndromes.
On the surface The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a simple story. It turns out to be Christopher’s long-suffering father who has killed Wellington, out of frustration because his wife has gone off with the man next door. Christopher finds out the truth when he discovers letters his mother has been writing to him and he sets out to find her. The journey, from Swindon to London, is truly epic since he has never travelled anywhere on his own before and through his eyes we remember the terror of the new and strange and the courage we all need to face change and to grow. Christopher looks death in the face.
Hope for the future
For the writer, hope lies in communication through language and the power of the creative imagination which help us to know what it is like to be inside someone else’s skin. In becoming a writer Christopher becomes hopeful about his future.
‘I will get a first class honours degree and I will become a scientist. And I know I can do this because I went to London and because I solved the mystery of who killed Wellington and I found my mother and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’
Luke too gains a similar authority and mastery via his book. Through his writing he can control the influx of overwhelming experience. In a chapter on ‘School’ and ‘Bullying’ – which all teachers should read – he shows how his teachers seem ignorant of his condition and his need for clear instructions:
‘I have lost count of the number of times I have been told to copy a title off the blackboard and then sat patiently waiting to be told what to do next, whilst everyone else scribbled frantically.’
He goes on to comment that he would be pounced on later as ‘unfortunate prey’. I was impressed by the use of metaphor to describe the violence he experienced in these actions and his feelings of animal helplessness. Paradoxically this ability to represent these complex feeling states through language is what makes us human. It is interesting to me that Luke subtitles his book ‘A User Guide to Adolescence’. It is as though he realises through the act of writing that his dilemmas are universal to all adolescents, not just those who suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome but all those who struggle with school, with friendships, with being bullied, and the terrible pain of feeling different.
*Esther Bick, Further considerations of the function of the skin and early object relations: findings from infant observation integrated into child and adult analysis, British Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 2, No. 4, Summer 1986.
Meg Errington is a psychotherapist in private practice and a counsellor in a London comprehensive school.
Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome, Luke Jackson, Jessica Kingsley, 1 84310 098 3, £12.95 pbk
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon, David Fickling Books, 0 385 60587 0, £10.99 hbk. See also audio review, p.25.