OAARSN Book Review

Like Colour to the Blind: soul searching and soul finding, by Donna Williams (1996).

Review by Tim Ward, in Saturday Globe and Mail of 15 March 1998, reprinted by permission in WWASnews 27 summer 1998. Mr Ward commented that he found Donna Williams' book helpful in his own life because her observations revealed the larger importance of things that ordinarily pass without comment or are ignored.

"I mapped Gzowski out: his hairy face, his gentle stance, his warm and raspy voice. He resonated the feel of an old grandpa tree, and Ian and I felt at ease in his company and strangely unimpinged upon...It was as if 'speaking with' was not something he did to people, it was a place where he met them, without expectation or judgment." This is Donna Williams, just before her interview on Morningside after the publication of her first book, Nobody nowhere, the autobiography of her life as a person with autism.

"A powerful, myth-shattering vision from inside a condition that continues to baffle medical science," says the old grandpa tree on the back cover of Williams's new book Like color to the blind," which is about the author's struggle to learn how to love another human being, something she had never known.

"I used to think that nobody else really felt love because I didn't (or, if I did, then constant systems shut-downs made it a highly inconsistent and fragmented, almost unintelligible experience). I had learned how to pretend its existence, so I assumed that was what others did. To me, the illusion of love as a real thing was a sort of agreed-upon, mass social conspiracy to self-delude."

At this barren starting place, she offers to share her small English cottage with Ian, a young man her age with Asperger syndrome, a slightly milder form of autism. "Though we appeared to be doing things together, we were usually speaking in parallel monologues, sharing things with the familiar human-objects that went by our names and giving and taking without realization of significance or awareness of want." Saying goodnight to each other's stuffed animals (instead of each other) is about the limit to their ability to converse outside of the "structured, repetitive, predictable, and routine."

When the author goes to pick up Ian at an airport, the only thing they recognize about each other is their coats. "We were pair of coats with names. Though we were glad to see the coats, we approached the people in them not so much with relief as caution. We looked at each other and saw almost nothing familiar... then, like apes, we smelled each other's hair and clothing. Donna, said Ian, referring to the smell. Ian, I said, smelling him with equal relief. At least something was roughly familiar."

They develop a fierce loyalty to each other, helping to break open the remote-control behaviour patterns, and finding specialists to help them with the considerable perceptual and biochemical imbalances that make their private worlds a jumble of disjointed sensory and emotional splinters. Williams's writing is brilliant, her perceptions painfully vivid. Her autism puts her struggle for love and life under a magnifying glass, through which we can see how much of our own lives is lost to "automatic pilot" and the stored gestures and opinions of others--even in something as simple as breakfast.

"Ian went automatically for the cornflakes and I went automatically for the herbal tea... Plastic, compulsion driven smiles would attempt to spread across our faces as we reached for things that were theoretically likeable or delicious...As long as things were theoretically good for me or the commercials had said they were good for you or worked well, I had always assumed that was how other people knew what they wanted and liked, so that was good enough for me."

Eventually, they go through their cupboards, tasting, smelling and throwing out anything they discover they don't like. Most of the food in the house goes, along with most of the clothes, the beds, furnishings, even cars. They stop seeing people for whom they have no genuine liking, and cease doing things they do not want to do. Gradually they learn to identify and feel their own feelings, their own likes and dislikes--including their genuine desire for each other. How many of us perfectly normal types, I wonder, would have the courage to follow suit?