Real lives behind the mini-genre

20th January 2006 at 00:00
JOE: THE ONLY BOY IN THE WORLD. By Michael Blastland. Profile Books Pounds 12.99

REALIZING THE COLLEGE DREAM WITH AUTISM OR ASPERGER SYNDROME: a parent's guide to student success. By Ann Palmer. Jessica Kingsley Publishers Pounds 13.99

A single name for a title; a portrait of a solitary boy on the dust jacket: no prizes for guessing that this is another of those books written by a parent about their autistic child.

As literary mini-genres go, this one has been booming for some years, helping to spread the word that there is more to this most baffling of developmental disorders than memorising telephone directories and taking casinos for a fortune.

And, on a quick perusal, Michael Blastland's account of his son's condition, and of his own efforts to come to terms with it, fits the pigeon-hole nicely. There are the usual accounts of funny-with-hindsight incidents in public places (how do you explain to an autistic child that the sanitary ware in the bathroom shop is not intended for use?) as well as predictably depressing tales of parents struggling to win support and recognition from public bodies whose own behaviour and lack of comprehension seems sometimes to border on corporate autism.

Joe's obsession with videos is second only to his fixation with Sainsbury's spinach and ricotta tortellini, and his determination that no other food and no other brand shall pass his lips makes the reader curious enough to give the stuff one last try.

But there is much more to Blastland's account than what he terms this "golden blend" of hilarity and pathos. As you might expect from a journalist whose work involves making Radio 4 Analysis programmes, there is a welcome thread of, well, analysis, running through the book.

As he explains from the outset, this was an attempt not just to inform others about autism, but to get to grips with it himself. And he does so by drawing in all manner of outside help, ranging from Kafka and Wittgenstein to the writer Francis Spufford and the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (whose enticing theory that autism is essentially an exaggeration of male mental traits Blastland considers is in need of more work). Everyone who has ever read a simple guide to "autistic spectrum disorders" will be familiar with the headline deficits. Autistic children have difficulty learning from their experiences, finding it hard to extrapolate general truths from particular events, or to see the wood for the trees.

Lacking self-awareness, they appear unable to grasp the reality of other minds -the much talked about "mind blindness" - and therefore remain locked in a state of mental and emotional isolation where communication is never real communication.

But what are the implications of this? How many human qualities can an individual lack and still retain what we like to call humanity?

Take empathy. "Chimps do it," Blastland observes, "(and) most humans first begin to show signs of it from around 20 months." But what of Joe, who once punched a crying baby in a shopping centre without apparent remorse or guilt? This is a tough zone to get into, particularly when the individual in question is one's own son. But Blastland boldly goes there, emerging with his optimism as undiminished as his sense of enquiry. If you read just one book about an autistic child this year, you would do well to make it this one.

Ann Palmer's guide to the pitfalls and possibilities of college life is not really about her autistic son, now 23, although Eric's experiences inform the book throughout.

When the boy was diagnosed with autism, his parents assumed that most of the doors that were open to their other children - a car, a family, independence and higher education - would be closed to him. But, gradually, they came to question this assumption.

Eric, it must be said, is not Joe. Autism comes in different forms and affects individuals to varying degrees, and Eric proved himself able to cope, first with an inclusive mainstream school, and then with campus life, where others might not.

That said, even such a capable boy might not have survived the many transitions involved had his mother been made of less stern stuff. From the outset, Palmer took it on herself to prepare her son for every change of routine and surroundings, arranging visits and meetings with staff and generally foreseeing the problems that her son might encounter.

In the process, she became an authority on the subject, and was soon sharing her strategies with other parents in her position. Although the Palmers live in North Carolina, and were therefore dealing with the United States education and medical systems, much of her experience applies equally this side of the Atlantic. After all, exams are exams, students are students, and autism has no regard whatever for national boundaries.

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