Last week I posted a look back at 20 Years of Locus Online and, having asked my lead contributors over the years for their best or exceptional posts, revisited an 11-year-old essay by film reviewer Gary Westfahl, Homo aspergerus: Evolution Stumbles Forward, in which he identifies his self-diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, and defends the syndrome as a potential evolutionary advance.
I’ll reconsider his essay more closely at a later date, but it inspired me to check out some online autism tests, and to reread the classic novel by Mark Haddon, published in 2003, which is told from the point of view of an autistic 15-year-old boy (though the text of the novel never uses that term, nor ‘Asperger’s’), in a town in England.
The novel starts as a mystery story (the title is an obvious quote from Sherlock Holmes) in which the narrator, Christopher, sees a dead dog late at night on a neighbor’s lawn, dead from a garden fork stabbed through its body. His reaction is to walk over to the dog, pick it up, and hug it. When he’s discovered by the dog’s owner, and then the police, he’s overwhelmed by too many questions and strikes out at the policeman. And is arrested.
His father rescues him, and the narrative proceeds to daily life, as Christopher’s attends a school for students with special needs, and pursues his sincere effort to investigate the dog’s death (by talking to neighbors and making deductions), and his discovery (spoiler) that his absent mother is not dead, as his father had told him. He then sets off on a quest to find his mother, in London — a quest which, considering his aversion to public spaces and unfamiliar circumstances, is surely as harrowing as any hero’s quest.
There are various questionnaires on the interwebs for autism diagnosis, but most of them rely on the same 50 question test (e.g.). I took a couple of these last week, thinking about some characteristics I might share with Gary Westfahl — at what point do a few personality quirks become a syndrome? — and then saw how Haddon’s novel illustrated many of those characteristics.
So here are some personality quirks exhibited by Christopher, divided into two groups…
- He numbers his chapters in primes, rather than cardinals
- His teacher gives him a set of simple diagrams of faces displaying various emotions, since he has a hard time understanding people’s facial expressions
- He knows lots of countries and their capitals
- He routinely makes asides to the narrative to ‘explain’ something, like the perspective into the Milky Way, (p9b), or how prime numbers are what results when you take all the patterns away (p12.7, an insight that had never occurred to me before, and which I think is rather profound)
- He plays computer games obsessively, and keeps track of his scores
- He thinks about heaven, which obviously doesn’t exist, p32; and how when you die nothing is left, p33
- He’s fascinated by nature and science programs on TV
- He likes math, and he explains the Monty Hall problem, which he likes because it shows how math intuition can go wrong (!!), how intuition can go awry
- He explains how “God and fairy tales and Hounds of Hell [from the Sherlock Holmes story] and curses” are “stupid things”, because, as with metaphors, he’s very literal and only understands tangible things
- He likes how science reveals how things you thought were true are wrong, p80.2
- He likes drawing floor plans of new places he comes to; knowing the area he’s in makes him feel safer.
- Aside about the constellation Orion, p125, how it doesn’t look like a hunter or anything else, how the stars are of varying distances.
- Several times: he doesn’t like people who smoke
- p153, he mentions computer games Myst and The 11th Hour.
- Several times: he doesn’t like to be hugged, so his parents invented a touching of hands, fingers spread, in place of that, as a gesture of affection
- He says he can’t lie. He’s very literal, 18.2, 19t; he’s OK with similes, but disapproves of metaphors, because they imply something that’s not real
- When confronted by too many questions, he withdraws, and ‘groans’, 7b, and then strikes out
- He can’t tell jokes, doesn’t understand them
- He finds people confusing, because they talk without words; they use metaphors, which to him make no sense; p103.7
- He doesn’t eat anything brown, or yellow (not just for the obvious reasons); reasons on p84
- He sees four red cars in a row and concludes it’s a good day, as he rides the bus to school; while patterns of differently colored cars mean bad days.
- He adds up the letters in people’s names to see if they make prime numbers
- He doesn’t like foods on his plate that touch; if they touch, he can’t eat them
- He can recall very specifically early memories of this mother, like rewinding a tape; he remembers things exactly, like the date he visited a certain place
- He doesn’t like new places, because he notices all the details of a place, and a new place overwhelms him
- When feeling threatened, he has a pocket knife he pulls out of his pocket
- He notices the patterns on the seat and walls of a train, p185
- When panicked by circumstances, like adults arguing in loud voices, he turns up the white noise between stations on a radio and holds it to his ears; or he does ‘maths’ in his head, like computing the cubes of the cardinal numbers
- When panicked by being in public among crowds of people, as in a shopping mall, he lies down on the floor and screams, until his mother takes him away, p201
Will follow up with how these two lists relate to other topics.