Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The nature of things

Autism can be a maddeningly elusive condition. It is a disability, but it is not disabling in the easily categorised way that losing a limb is disabling, and as a result compensating for what is missing is far less straightforward than attaching a prosthetic arm or leg. In fact, much of the confusion exists because it can be hard to grasp exactly where the shortfall lies. Autistic people, as one therapist put it to me, "look normal", and sometimes act normal; they have learning difficulties, but they are not incapable of learning. (As an aside, I'm used to assuming that highly visible conditions such as Down's syndrome must attract unwanted attention, but lately I've learned of the opposite problem from parents who say: "if only people could see my child's disability, they wouldn't be so quick to judge his behaviour in public").
There is a mountain of literature on the nature of autism and I anticipate spending much of the next decade ploughing through it. For now I'm on the nursery slopes, flipping through Simon Baron-Cohen's slimline but illuminating Mindblindness. One notion in particular stood out: the concept of "skin-bags", first put forward by psychologist Alison Gopnitz. She speculates on how a "mindblind" person would experience a family dinner: "Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved toward you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do."
I should confess from the outset to having a preference for colourful images over hard, dry scientific reasoning. But the more I thought about the skin-bags theory, the more I started to reconcile it with Euan's behaviour. Put simply, I started to wonder if part of the problem was an inability to distinguish objects from people. It might help to explain why he can't understand that Adam doesn't like to play with him when he's tired; why he is terrified of dogs in the park, but happy to watch them on television; why he treats Magteld and me like climbing-frames, clambering over us when we're sitting on the sofa as if we're extensions of the furniture. Euan is constantly banging his fists against things: walls, the furniture, books and his parents - at first we put it down to boisterousness, but could it be he just wants to know what we sound like? He is fascinated by movement, watches running taps and CD player displays as avidly as he follows a film on television. He is adept at learning in sequences, which is perhaps why he is so much better at counting than at forming sentences. I'm starting to think that he finds the world a far more interesting place than I've given him credit for. The downside is it's a far more uncertain one, too, where the slightest deviation from routine can be overwhelming. Objects make sense; people often do not - this may be the hardest thing we have to teach Euan.

1 comment:

Simon said...

You've probably seen this, but:

So yes: your hypothesis appears to be one that would bear repeated testing.

Also: Ali G's cousin! I love that.