Tuesday, 23 September 2008

They're everywhere!

While reading a review of a biography of the Scottish writer Alasdair Gray I was pulled up short by a remark from one of his former girlfriends. When her son fell ill with cancer, Gray offered no support; she summed up his attitude in the sentence: "It was almost as if he didn't understand what was happening." And almost involuntarily, I stopped reading the review and thought: "Is he...?"
Last week I was running around a local park in light rain when a woman came into the park with her son, who looked about 10, and her dog. The mother and dog went off for a walk through the park, the son sat down on a bench with a robot toy and played with it - oblivious to the rain, to the fact his mother had gone for a walk, or to me hurtling round and round the park like a man being chased by a giant wasp. Presently I saw him walking through the park, unperturbed, staring down at his feet, presumably off to meet up with his mother, looking for all the world as if this was the standard pattern for their days out. And I practically had to restrain myself from approaching the woman and saying: "So, is your child autistic too?"
Magteld and I were watching a news item about disruptive teenagers. It ran the gamut of journalistic cliches about children running wild, bunking school, hanging around on street corners looking vaguely menacing, keeping their hands in their pockets, wearing clothes that mark them out as teenagers and other such antisocial traits. At the end came an interview with a boy who was constantly causing trouble in his neighbourhood, alongside his despairing mother. The boy gave only fleeting glances to the interviewer and the camera, and struggled to find his words. And Magteld and I looked at each other and said: "Did you see that?"
I could easily add to this list of people I've observed who look somehow out of place: square pegs in the honeycomb of life. The fact is, all of a sudden I've started to see potentially autistic people everywhere I look: on television, in the place where I work, walking the streets. It's like viewing the world through infra-red goggles, or rotating a glass cube containing a disjointed bundle of sticks through 180 degrees to reveal a box-frame. There are hazards here: autism is a difficult condition that takes a team of specialists several weeks to diagnose. There are all sorts of reasons why an unruly teenager might act surly, or a famous writer might be self-absorbed, or a young boy might be more interested in his toys than his mother on a particular morning. A friend who also has an autistic son said to me at the weekend: "you can spot them." And while the autistic radar may not always be spot-on, there's no escaping the fact that autism has changed the way we look at the world for ever.

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