Sunday 5 October 2008

The consolation of genius

After a while, "spotting" autistics in the street, or among friends and colleagues, or on the television, becomes a kind of obsession in itself, a party game similar to the "who is a Jew" game I once read about. (It's not as sinister as it sounds: the writer was a Jewish-descended journalist who, on meeting other Jewish-descended journalists, liked to swap notes on celebrities whose Jewish background was mostly unknown. At the root of this ethnic Top Trumps was a kind of implicit community pride: see how our community has achieved so much that even we don't know the half of it).
Fictional characters are even better: since they can't be conclusively tested or diagnosed, the possibilities are limitless. My list includes Stephen Dedalus, Prez in The Wire, Alan Partridge and The Incredible Hulk (for his limited language skills, poor eye contact and raging tantrums).
As Paul Collins notes in his perceptive book Not Even Wrong, which I recommend to Autistic Dads (and Mums) everywhere, the names at the top of most people's lists are Isaac Newton and Einstein. Not far behind come the likes of Mozart, Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol. It's often the first thing you hear when you breach the subject of your child's condition: a sincere, well-meaning comment along the lines of "oh, but Mozart was autistic - you've probably got a genius on your hands." Yet as well-intentioned as this kind of statement is, it betrays two conceits: firstly, that exceptional talent, rather than happiness or social aptitude, is the highest ideal that parents can aspire to for their children; and secondly, that developmental disorders such as autism, or mental illness, can be offset against individual genius: that there is some consolation in genius, since it's the quality that is most likely to endure after death.
It's a hangover, though people would be horrified to acknowledge it, from the old Victorian Bedlam attitude to mental disorders. Display a "savant" ability and you would be indulged, often over-indulged, often at the cost of your own personal well-being; show none, and you were condemned to a life in the madhouse. Just consider the statistical implications and you soon realise that even among the autistic population, geniuses of world renown make up only a tiny proportion of the whole. Autism, by and large, has meant isolation, loneliness, a high chance of mental illness and, until recently, widespread institutionalisation. And let's not forget what being one of these feted genius entailed: Mozart drove himself into an early grave at 35, his obsessive work schedule at odds with his fragile health; Van Gogh suffered from paranoia and depression, and eventually shot himself, and Warhol's private and public demons are well documented.
I will leave the last word to Paul Collins: "There are Newtons of refridgerator parts, Newtons of painted light bulbs, Newtons of train schedules, Newtons of bits of string. Isaac Newton happened to be the Newton of Newtonian physics, and you cannot have him without having the others, too."

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