Wednesday 21 April 2010

Stage Fright or Social Frustration?

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s Young, Autistic and Stagestruck for the past couple of weeks, and despite the faux-hip title, it’s been excellent. (If you haven’t caught it, the last episode is on Monday, April 26 at 8pm). In contrast all those distressing documentaries that focus on the horror and strangeness of autism, this one makes the effort to portray the nine teenagers as individuals with distinct personalities. It underlines how no two autistic people are autistic in the same way, and yet they all share something in common. Several of them are making their first meaningful friendships within the group and it’s heartening to watch – when two of them went on a date to the cinema it seemed like a small miracle. And the parents, though present, aren’t allowed to intrude or dominate, which was the issue I had with a similar venture in the US called Autism: The Musical.
It all reinforced something I’ve observed in my own children. Autism is often portrayed as an anti-social condition, and in many ways it is, but it doesn’t follow that autistic people are inherently anti-social. Often they’re fascinated by social rules and rituals. It’s just that they don’t get them. One of the children in Young, Autistic and Stagestruck says at one point: ‘I don’t really make any friends, but I wish I could.’ And one of the breakthrough moments comes when the drama teachers stop trying to get them to ‘improvise’ and start handing out props. All of a sudden the children’s creative talents start to bloom, like flowers after a desert shower.
When Euan still went to mainstream school I used to watch him in the playground before class in the morning. At first he refused to join in, but after a few months he was bold enough to leave my side and play alongside the children from his class. He ran after them, a pace or two behind, and when they stopped, so did he. He had no idea how to start the games off and I’m not sure he even understood why they were running, but it was clear he loved being with other children, watching them and trying to join in.
How much of autism, then, comes down to what could be called social frustration? When most of us walk into a large room full of strangers, we find it daunting, but we can intuit our way through. We look for signs, little clues that people are available for conversation, and after a few minutes we’ve usually succeeded in striking up at least a superficial rapport with someone. To an autistic person, I suspect, those little cues and prompts are invisible; it’s as if they don’t exist. It’s like going fishing with a bath plug instead of a baited hook. Sooner or later you’re going to give up and go home, or start banging your head off the side of the boat in frustration. Seen in this light, my children’s behavioural quirks suddenly don’t seem so strange or alarming to me; they’re how anyone would behave in those circumstances.