Tales of autism, with and without a Rainman gloss

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Wild Boy
June 11, 2004

The Times Higher does not normally review novels. Yet, if seriously researched, a novel can be as informative as a technical book but easier to digest. There are two criteria that make novels worth recommending to students, teachers or parents who are seeking information on specific topics. The first is that the author has thoroughly researched the relevant domain. The second is that the author demonstrates literary talent. These two novels, one by Mark Haddon and one by Jill Dawson, are both about the spectrum of autism. How do they measure up against these two criteria?

Haddon's book is narrated by 15-year-old Christopher who, the jacket informs us, has Asperger's syndrome. How seriously has the author researched this condition? Well, there is a form of jazz and classical music called "easy listening". This novel falls within the category of "easy reading"; entertaining as it is, its research into the autistic spectrum is obviously superficial.

Throughout, Haddon slips between the features of Asperger's syndrome, those of autism and those of normal adolescence. His hero has an unconvincing capacity for immense self-reflection, hypothetical reasoning and imagination that experts in the field of Asperger's are unlikely to have encountered.

For example, in chapter 163 (the chapter numbers follow the sequence of primes - an amusing gimmick), we are told that Christopher fails the Smarties test. Shown that a packet of Smarties contains a pencil, a normal four-year old will be aware that someone who has not seen the pencil inside will presume the packet contains Smarties, while children with autism will often fail at this task, attesting to their lack of ability to impute to others mental states that differ from their own. By contrast, high-functioning individuals with Asperger's syndrome easily pass this first-order test. They tend, rather, to fail second-order theory-of-mind tasks, such as understanding the idea that "John believes that Mary thinks that Helen is in the park".

Moreover, the more expressive the language of people within the autistic spectrum (and Christopher's is astonishing), the more likely they are to succeed in theory-of-mind tasks. Furthermore, contrary to Haddon's claims in chapter 29, people with Asperger's syndrome do understand metaphor; it is irony and sarcasm that presents them with inordinate difficulties.

On the other hand, Haddon captures beautifully the autistic tendency to take language literally, to avoid physical contact, to shy away from sensory stimulation, to insist on obsessive rituals and to fly into uncontrollable rages. But he gets many other aspects of Asperger's syndrome wrong. Unfortunately, many non-scientific reviewers believe that this novel presents an accurate insight into the autistic spectrum. It is to be hoped that the producers of any film based on the book will turn to real experts in autism while adapting it.

As for the question of Haddon's literary talent, it is relevant that this is his first attempt at a book for adults rather than children. Does it lack stylistic eloquence because it speaks to us through the voice of an adolescent? Time will tell whether Haddon has the capacity to narrate through a multitude of other voices.

Dawson's Wild Boy is set in 19th-century France, when Paris was buzzing with stories about the "savage" of Aveyron. Dawson fictionalises this story with three voices: the doctor Itard, the governess Madame Guerin, and the Wild Boy himself, Victor. Dr Itard staked his career on proving that he could tame Victor and teach him to speak. But, according to Dawson, Itard's efforts were doomed because he failed to realise that Victor suffered from severe autism.

Dawson's research is more thorough than Haddon's, both in terms of the historical setting and the debilitating disorder she covers. She brings to her novel, we are told, years of personal experience of raising a son with Asperger's syndrome. Her book reveals how autism explains Victor's survival in the wild: lacking a sense of danger, he feels neither pain nor extremes of temperature. While Dr Itard intellectualises the situation (is Dawson suggesting that the doctor might be a high-functioning Asperger?), it is through Guerin that the author illustrates how mothers' roles in caring for atypical children are vastly underestimated.

Dawson creates a character who displays the most challenging aspects of the autistic condition, not redeemed by any extraordinary talents. Yet she convincingly shows how he is still lovable, individual and fully human.

Haddon's book, by contrast, perpetuates the Rainman stereotype of the (exceedingly rare) highly gifted disabled person, as if this were the only way to value those with disabilities. Dawson's novel is thus much deeper, facing head-on topics such as nature v. nurture in the development of the autistic spectrum, while celebrating the wilder aspects of all human beings.

Dawson is clearly one of Britain's most talented contemporary writers. None the less, her novel is not an easy read like Haddon's, which can be finished in a single evening. My advice to non-specialists would be to read Haddon's entertaining novel first, but with much caution regarding the accuracy of its depiction of Asperger's syndrome, then tackle Dawson's more significant, eloquently written book. After that, if sufficiently enthused about the fascinating topic of autism, turn to drier academic works.

Annette Karmiloff-Smith is head, Neurocognitive Development Unit, Institute of Child Health, London University.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Author - Mark Haddon
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 2
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 0 224 06378 2

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