Autism Revisited
By Carolyn See for the
Washington Post
"Send In The Idiots" Stories From the Other Side of Autism
By Kamran Nazeer.
Bloomsbury. 230 pp. $23.95

      Kamran Nazeer sets the tone of this touching book in an ingenious,
seemingly offhand introduction. The place is a private nursery school on
Manhattan's Upper West Side; the time is the early 1980s. Nazeer is one of a
dozen kids there who have been diagnosed with the then-rare syndrome of
autism. But from the author's point of view, almost every human being has
one limitation or another: The teacher, Ms. Russell, has such troubles with
depth perception that she can scarcely get dressed in the morning. It's not
until the middle of the day that she feels up to reading a newspaper out
loud to the class.
      But one little boy, Craig, has echolalia, "the constant, disconnected
use of a particular word or phrase," in this case, "Send in the idiots."
Thus, Ms. Russell would read, "Gridlock continues between the White House
and Congress," and Craig would chime in, "Send in the idiots." How far off,
the author hints, was Craig's repetitive chant? Idiots abound. Physical and
mental limitations are always with us. It's not just people with autism who
are off the mark. We're all off the mark, one way or another.
      Flash-forward a little more than 20 years. Kamran Nazeer has become
what we call "high functioning." He's studied some law, completed his PhD
thesis, worked as a British civil servant and written for several
publications. Then he gets the idea of revisiting some of the classmates he
knew as a preschooler. A "typical" kid would have a difficult, if not
impossible, time finding them or even remembering their names, but parents
of kids with autism form close bonds. His mom and dad have kept in touch
with the other parents over the years. So Nazeer sets out to visit four of
his old classmates.
      How did they turn out? The answer may offer some clues to a larger
question: What's going to happen to this massive generation of children who
have been part of the current, much-dreaded epidemic of this mental
disorder?
      Currently, as many as one in every 166 children born in the
United
States
will develop autism. "Whirling . . . running to and fro; bouncing;
walking on toes and in other peculiar ways; banging or rolling heads;
mouthing and licking things; grinding teeth; blinking; moving fingers as if
double-jointed" and being unwilling or unable to talk -- these are some of
the symptoms that affect these children. And at this point, we have little
information in print about what it all means, only anguished accounts by
mothers about what may or may not work in terms of child care, or academic
speculation by "experts" who -- no matter how distinguished they may be --
still haven't found a cause, a cure or a guaranteed successful treatment.
Books by
Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who grew up to fashion
a new kind of chute for cattle, offer little real insight into the condition. And
the mercury-in-our-vaccines argument offers more heat than light on the
subject.
      Forget all that for now. The question for Nazeer and for his
schoolmates is whether they can live in the world without catastrophe.
Certainly Nazeer is well and competent enough to go researching. He looks up
four autistic kids he went to school with: Craig, the little boy who first
asked Ms. Russell to send in those idiots; Andre, who is beset by bouts of
violence; Randall, who is being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous lover;
and Elizabeth, who has killed herself by the time Nazeer catches up with her
family.
      Andre, the one with the temper, lives with his sister now, but he's
done time in a juvenile facility for inadvertently almost killing somebody.
He's constructed a set of puppets and speaks mostly through them. When
Nazeer interrupts a puppet, he finds himself locked in the bathroom. Andre
works in computers, his sister loves him, and they have friends to hang out
with. If he learns to control his temper, he'll survive.
      Randall is a different story. He works as a courier in downtown
Chicago and is in a relationship with someone who appears to be a loving,
faithful gay man. This man, Mike, is Randall's buffer against the outside
world: He makes the phone calls and explains to Randall when he is being
taken advantage of. But it turns out that he's doing a little taking
advantage himself -- fooling around, and assuming that because Randall is
autistic, he won't notice. To read this chapter is to burn with rage.
     
Elizabeth, despite her parents' very best efforts, couldn't stand
either the complexities of the larger world or the constant, always
unexpected taunts of strangers. Her "vocalizing" in public, for instance,
made her prey to people who couldn't resist making fun of her. When clinical
depression was added to her autism, she ended her own suffering.
      With Craig, Nazeer finds the closest thing he can expect to a real
friend. Although both are moderately autistic, they have plenty to talk
about, and so they devise rules for conversation: taking turns, rolling
paper clips in their pockets or holding on to other talismans for
self-confidence. Together, they seem happy -- even proud -- to be alive.
They have gotten better, whatever that means. "Our autism eased," he writes,
"in each case, because of other people, our parents, friends, and our
teachers, of course."
      Of course, there are those whose autism doesn't ease. What will become
of them (or their caretakers), we can't know. But these words, written by a
precocious, even slightly know-it-all author, may in themselves ease the
agony of parents and grandparents who have seen their children inexplicably
skid away into a place where they seem untouchable, locked into an
inscrutable world of their own.