Everyday life as experienced by the disabled is best described from the inside. Stephen Kuusisto's recent autobiography Planet of the Blind told more about living with severely impaired sight than could be conveyed by any academic account. Now, in A Real Person, Gunilla Gerland details what it has been like to exist somewhere on the continuum between Asperger's syndrome and severe autism. Beautifully translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate, this moving autobiography should be read by anyone who wants or needs to discover more about this most baffling of conditions.
Gerland was born into a family that eventually broke down in spectacular fashion. Her own disability would once have been blamed by some on the effect on her of this growing dysfunction as home. But while autistic children can play a part in exacerbating family discord, current theories now look for biological causes to explain the origins of their impairment. In Gerland's case she was always a puzzled observer rather than a full participant in family life. She never learned to understand what anyone actually wanted from her. When she was older, simple tasks such as crossing the road or finding her way to the school lavatories and back seemed very difficult and sometimes impossible. She hated being touched, had problems with eating and found it hard to recognise familiar faces.
Not, then, an easy child, and readers may feel more sympathy with her parents than does the author, at least in the early stages before her father began behaving so badly and her mother turned into a self-absorbed alcoholic. But while the family was still functioning, it was understandable that sister, parents and grandparents all tried to nudge Gerland into behaving in a more normal way.
This book shows how impossible it was for her to change. Like the fairy-children of old, thought to have been substituted in the cradle by malignant spirits, the author seems to occupy a different universe following its own rules. A Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, she marvelled at what she saw but could not join in.
Her life turned increasingly sad as a result. Overweight and unpopular at school, she became one of a drop-out gang in adolescence. Drugs and alcohol gave her some temporary sense of belonging, but feelings of worthlessness persisted. Working later with troubled children revealed in her a natural talent, but after a while the strain was too great. Psychotherapy offered some help, but it was only when she read a book about autism and recognised her own symptoms that she finally accepted her own life-long difference from others, and the fact that she could do very little to change. Yet paradoxically towards the end of her account she does seem to be improving, for reasons as mysterious as her existing disability.
There was also the positive effect of writing this book: a feat barely mentioned in the text, but a hugely important step. Her dogged descriptions of unhappiness at every turn do not make for easy reading, yet this is still a fascinating account of an unusual but not unique life.
Its message bears on all adult relationships with children. When faced by behaviour that seems inexplicable or even perverse, still try to understand always. One of the greatest human follies is to assume that others are either just like oneself or else should be, once they have seen reason. Gerland speaks up for all nonconforming children, in an age of growing educational conformity: what she has to say deserves to be taken seriously.
Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in developmental psychology, University of Sussex.
A Real Person: Life on the Outside
Author - Gunilla Gerland
ISBN - 0 521 24280 0
Publisher - Souvenir Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 255