When I was at school, I was brilliant at maths. It all seemed so straightforward that I didn’t really know why it was included in a lesson. I mean who can’t add and subtract or convert everything to quadratic equations? Consequently, I was often bored and never studied very much. In my other lessons I tended to get bored anyway and didn’t study very much there either. Everything seemed either obvious or irrelevant. My teachers alternated between extreme pride and extreme irritation; reward and punishment.
I was also shy in groups and nervous of people who stared. I have of course now taught myself to overcome these weaknesses, as I have also learned empathy and other things I wasn’t taught at school. These days I would probably be diagnosed as suffering from some syndrome or other and given special treatment or put in the IT class.
There weren’t any syndromes in my youth (or IT!), just naughtiness or laziness or giftedness in one subject or another. But, as an adult, none of this applies. I am just normal.
Along with recognition that some children think differently from others has come a greater awareness that such differences are not bad, nor even necessarily worse than others. A number of famous experts – musicians, composers, authors, etc,- have been outed in recent years as probably being at some particular point on the autistic spectrum. And, more recently, there has been a rash of dramas on TV, film and stage featuring main characters with ASDs.
I like the fact that society has come to terms with this and that it is so comfortable with the resultant openness. There are of course examples of bullying, etc of those with ASDs, but that is not the point of this post. I just find it so refreshing that we can recognise skills in those with ASDs and can even be comfortable laughing at situations in which they find themselves, whilst feeling sympathy and without actually being unpleasant towards them.
The first dramatisation I took note of was Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This was a delightful book, narrated by Christopher, whom we gradually assume to have Asperger’s or similar, who sees the world in surprising and revealing ways. He fixatedly pursues the mystery of the dog of the title and gets on with his difficult life in the process. I was constantly chuckling at Christopher’s views and deductions and ended having enormous affection for him, rather than ridiculing him as might have happened at a time when I was his age.
The book is currently on the London stage and I believe Brad Pitt is making a film of it. It is a very popular play such as might not have been the case before Asperger’s was recognised.
It is not a coincidence that the title echoes that of a Sherlock Holmes story.
Inspector Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
I have only recently, thanks mainly to the TV series, begun to think of Sherlock as on some sort of spectrum. Of course, half the characters in the TV series display autistic tendencies. But the point is that the series is played with humour, as well as a great deal of reverence. It is exciting, with many unexpected twists and turns, but also peopled with fascinating characters with a totally different way of approaching the world from you or me (well, me anyway). Watson is of course the complete antithesis. Nothing could have been funnier than Holmes’ attempt at a wedding reception speech, with almost complete lack of empathy or proper understanding of his role. Despite the hilarity though of his awkwardness, there was absolutely no suggestion that we should have laughed at him. Indeed we understood and suffered with him. I wonder how Basil Rathbone would have played him today.
But by far the best example though is Saga Noren in The Bridge, played brilliantly by Sofia Helin. Saga is also Asperger’s, although it’s never spelt out. I guess it is not a new premise that an autistic detective might have special skills (viz Holmes), but, in addition, much of the second series of The Bridge features Saga struggling to learn how to laugh at jokes, how to interact with her boyfriend, how to tell white lies, rather than the painful truth, etc. When she takes out a stack of post-mortem photographs to study whilst lying naked in bed after sex, or when she sits all evening at home reading books on relationships, we are highly amused. And the dialogue, with her failing to grasp at all the emotional sub-text of any conversation, is hilarious. Yet, again, there is no way we feel anything but sympathy for the character. In fact this series might be all about the entertaining interaction between the pair – one highly emotional, trying unsuccessfully to recover from a breakdown, and the other emotionally bereft, but both equally in need of sympathy. Indeed, in a neat twist, it is the Asperger’s detective’s blunt honesty that gets through to her ‘normal’ partner, rather than any amount of counselling.
I hope that this uplifting change in the viewing of ASDs reflects a better popular understanding of the disorder, or at least contributes to a better understanding of its naturalness in society. Indeed it would be nice to see other conditions featured in entertainment in this way. But I fear we have a little way to go and we still seem to feel less empathy with people over their body size, appearance, mobility, mental health, etc. Maybe we need more black humour about the minority of ‘normal’ people who feature in celebrity magazines?