Readings: Autism

Recommended reading: A fascinating article in The Sunday New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2008, titled “Reaching an Autistic Teenager,” written by Melissa Fay Greene.

The article focuses on a small private school that serves — educates — teenage boys with autism or related disorders. When I started working on Along Came Spider, I was initially interested in isolation, kids who were cut off from their peers. I began to read about autism, sensing that it would help me understand (and in turn, build) a character in the story, Trey Cooper. For some reason, I connected with aspects of autistic behaviors, although I had little real-life experience. So the file gets thicker. And now it goes electronic.

Is that how writers work? Do we work on ideas? Or do the ideas work on us? The images crawling into our dreams?

Here’s one basic sentence from the article, and I’ll tell you why it resonates:

Children with autism — especially Asperger’s — are famous for all-consuming interests in Matchbox cars, bus maps, train schedules, oscillating fans, Civil War battles, baseball statistics, black holes, dinosaurs, chess or Star Wars.

Don’t all boys do that? Didn’t I? But somehow these boys who reach the point of clinical diagnoses– and I say “boys” because boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls — go farther, spinning, spinning, unspooling out. Obsessed with trains? Baseball statistics? Dinosaurs or Star Wars? Sounds like every boy I’ve ever known. Sounds like me. It’s just a matter of how far along the spectrum we travel. But we’re all on that same track. Connected by that invisible thread. Separated only by degrees.

In some limited but meaningful way, I identify.

Two more excerpts:

“I had a very bad night!” Edwick yelled from the floor. “Nightmares all night!”

“What was disturbing you, Edwick?” Nelson asked.

“What do you think?” Edwick cried in exasperation. “It’s St. Patrick’s Day!”

“What’s upsetting about that?” Nelson asked.

Edwick dropped his shoulders to relay how tiring it was to have to explain every little thing. “Leprechauns,” he yelled.

Hey, that’s funny. I mean, yes, it’s real, it’s poignant, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s funny.

Ty Martin, 14, is a cute and curly-haired guy who lives in terror of loud or strange noises. The faux thunderstorm in the produce aisles at the grocery store makes it difficult to take him shopping. A classmate’s coughing or a siren in the distance distracts him from schoolwork. His mother often was obliged to retreat to a windowless basement room at home, hugging and soothing her son when the outside world — especially lawn crews next door with leaf-blowers — overwhelmed him. “He doesn’t like crows,” Judy Martin told me last spring. “If crows are at a park, he’ll go from happy to berserk in five seconds. If we go to a restaurant, we’re all on edge, praying the bartender doesn’t turn on the blender.”

Here’s my favorite line in the article:

“You meet one child with autism and, well, you’ve met one child with autism,” says Linda Brandenburg, the director of school autism services at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland.

As a writer, dealing with one character named Trey Cooper, I felt a sense of obligation to the community at large — an impossible obligation to fulfill. There are so many different stories to tell, and I only told a small part of one. I couldn’t possibly get it all right. Couldn’t be complete or comprehensive. In the end, you have to accept the limits of a book, the limits of storytelling itself, the limits of my own skills.

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