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Not Even Wrong

Adventures in Autism

by Paul Collins
Review by Jay Young

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Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism was written by historian Paul Collins, the author of Sixpence House. His son Morgan bounces around exuberantly playing verbal games with numbers and letters, banging on the piano, reading everything in sight, and interacting with his nanny and parents in his own way. He's as happy as Mandy West in Paul West's old classic Words for a Deaf Daughter and just as oblivious to the fact that according to autism experts, he's actually living in a world of his own and that there must be a real child in there struggling to get out, etc., etc. And his parents! They think he's simply a bright kid with many interests. Who the hell cares if he doesn't answer when you ask his name or play along with dumb "look at the funny monkey" games when there's a much more interesting talking computerized camera in the same room?

In short, the parents don't see a damn thing wrong with the kid, because there isn't anything wrong with the kid. He's just more interested in music, math, reading, and audio equipment than people. A phalanx of experts try to convince Collins that his kid's in need of vast amounts of therapy to bring him up to "normal", but Collins sensibly doesn't buy it even after he is made to understand that two-year-olds generally have more interest in the above social interactions.

Like Paul West, Collins goes back in time to look at historical figures who may have had conditions similar to autism, which the shrinks finally talk him into believing his son is at least sort of kind of on the spectrum. Maybe. He spends a lot of time on Peter the Wild Boy, gets into a bit of Henry Darger and others, and presents us with an endless array of fascinating trivia. Thirty years ago, the obviously devoted Collins would have been targeted as one of those too- intellectual "refrigerator parents" whose cold, remote attitude forced their kids to withdraw into a shell of autism. He talks about Bruno Bettelheim, too -- the guy who faked a psychology degree and promoted the theory that all autism was caused by abusive parents. Bettelheim defrauded the psychiatric community and the public for years, while brutalizing hundreds of children at his Orthogenic School -- most of whom weren't autistic.

Collins looks for (and finds) a way to help Morgan communicate without murdering who he is, using an array of homemade picture cards. He also finds a school with an autistic program where the kids are permitted to learn through their own ways and interests. The book ends in almost a parody of the old sunburst-through-clouds, OMG it's a breakthrough fashion when Morgan notices Collins has left the room and yells "Daddy" to bring him back. So the NT-philes get a little smidgy of what they want, and Morgan remains damn well autistic.

The book repeatedly gives the message that it's a mistake to try to force we autistics into so called normality. Parents of other autistic kids tell Collins about how their kid went through the pink monkey routine when they were mainstreamed, but did fine in an autistic school where they're allowed to communicate in their own way. Simply letting autistic people be autistic is such a revolutionary idea!

I think this is the future. A lot of us forget that just a few years ago, autism was still being classified as a psychological problem. Part of this confusion is caused by the fact that some psychotic children (made that way by abuse or other toxic life circumstance) behave superficially similar to autistic (cf. Mira Rothenberg's Children with Emerald Eyes). The Journal of Autism used to be the Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia and the two conditions were constantly being mistaken for each other. Now it is generally acknowledged thanks to Dr. Bernard Rimland and others that autism has a neurological basis and is not a response to child abuse. (Wait till they find out the same thing for multiple personalities.)

Most experts are still dedicated to the concept of "finding a CURE!!!", which has now become a huge money-generating industry. But many parents, like Estee Klar, who runs The Joy of Autism, or Kristina Chew -- don't feel that way. They see nothing wrong with their kids -- they're just different, so their education and socialization will have to be different.

It'll take a while to change, but I believe it will change. And I am gonna be here and see it, and so will you.

Bluejay Young

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