OAARSN Book Review
STORY: Autism and Other Adventures, by Lucy Blackman,
in Canada for $36.40 from Irwin Publishing:
Reviewed for OAARSN by Lucie Milne
This is not an easy book to read, certainly not one to wing through on the fly. I am a fast reader but speed-reading was out of the question. I had to absorb the book at a senior’s snail pace. I am glad I did so. Lucy’s autobiography is fascinating and amazing. While the book would be a difficult read for someone with little or no knowledge of autism, starting the book by first reading the "Afterword" by Tony Attwood PhD helped me to understand Lucy’s strange perspective and what for many seem to be her illogical behaviour or actions as well as her seemingly weird means of coping and her unconventional responses.
An example of Lucy’s bizarre behaviour is hand biting, used to express a thought or feeling like anger. In it she finds "a wonderfully comforting kind of pain [that] made me feel in control." For Lucy such behaviour was logical. In adulthood she determined that hand biting was "an unrecognized sign I was developing an urge to use more spoken words. . . . to make a more forceful comment."
Lucy’s auditory and visual problems explain her behaviour of swaying, humming and running in circles, often in the most inappropriate times and places. As an adult Lucy identified this alarming behaviour as "a defence against uninterrupted exposure to my sound environment." She writes, "Even today continuous motor noise makes it impossible to interpret my environment or the people in it. Hearing certain sounds gave me more of a skin-than a brain response." Movement relieved the constant noise in Lucy’s daily life. Her odd patterns of walking were possibly efforts for her to cope with disturbing aspects of her environment. Her mother Jay walked miles with Lucy, directing her in the proper way of setting her feet to pavement and road. Such efforts drew odd looks from passers by.
In regard to sound and sensitivity, Lucy says she benefited from Auditory Integration Training in the United States, a new technique then, still to be established by research studies. Her trip to the US was her first experience with plane travel--an adventure in itself for Lucy and her mother!
Lucy writes that she came to language twelve years too late. Another five years she was enrolled in a literary studies course at University, where she was to receive her BA Honours. Lucy wrote a story in which the central character was a small child, much like the memories of her silent self, entitled Flat Reflections in the Round. Her autobiography is Lucy’s account of how that story came to be written. In her teens she began to use a keyboard with someone touching her arm, later her shoulder, thus being an early user of Facilitated Communicating techniques with the help of Rosemary Crossley. She created poems and stories in her head from words she read. In High School she learned how to explain herself and she began to create characters in her stories. It was while writing that she began to understand her autism and through that understanding came to type on her computer without physical support to complete her degree in Literary Studies.
In cognitive skills Lucy also had major problems, especially in sequencing and in learning cause and effect. The structured environment at The Autistic Centre, which she attended when young, minimized her problems with cause and effect. Since writing her book, Lucy has found Irlen lenses of benefit.
An interesting question has been posed by Elizabeth Bloomfield whose adult son has autism: Why have there been more by or about girls and young women with autism that about or by males? Yet males with autism greatly outnumber females. Is there a gender difference in expressiveness? Or do girls evoke more empathy and support from their mothers (usually) or other mentors or tutors? Tony Attwood says this of Lucy’s book. "There are many autobiographies written by people with autism; why is this one different? The answer is that Lucy provides the point of view of someone with autism who has never used speech."
I find it interesting to think about the factors that motivate all of us as individuals, especially when so many people live in their small compartments of being and just go on from day to day without asking questions such as What makes my life matter? or What is the meaning of my existence? A change in focus so often occurs only when adversity or suffering enter into one’s life. All of us are unique and have our differences, but I sense that people with differences that label them as disabled may have or develop a motivation of a special kind. What motivates a person like Lucy to will herself to move out of her silent world, to slowly capture the meaning of life in herself that is more than absorbed information, to perceive herself but also to finally to perceive others as being more than brain-scrambled pieces of the entire person, that a person is more than just a presence standing in front of one? Lucy appears to find joy and satisfaction in each discovery, in every changed experience and therefore new perception of others.
There are other questions to ponder. Relationships are or become a part of communication and are building blocks for meaning in one’s life. Lucy writes about her mother who has been the driving force in her life. She writes with humour yet her statements about Jay tend to be flip and often sound hurtful. Is this because Lucy cannot perceive her mother’s feelings, or realize that she has her own mind and preferences about situations? Since individuals with autism have problems discerning the emotions or feelings of others, I would not label Lucy as selfish or self-centred. Yet her adolescent sarcasms and caustic humour about her mother may disturb some readers. But adult authors who are not autistic also have expressed similar feelings about their parents.
I have learned a great deal about autism from Lucy’s book. I admire Lucy and all she has achieved. I remember that Lucy does not, even today, answer questions in the same way as other people, including myself. And so I can only ask more questions, which is what books like this should make us do. I thank Lucy for sharing her story, to teach me more about life and those who live it with courage and fortitude.
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