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Being different: The marvels of the autistic world

Posted by on May. 21, 2011 at 1:25 PM
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Being different: The marvels of the autistic world

By GERRY LOUGHRAN

Posted  Saturday, May 21 2011 at 17:12

IN SUMMARY

  • The signs: There are obvious signs: inability to recognise social signals or empathise with other people’s feelings, to understand jokes or spot sarcasm and irony

Looking back to Miss Fitzgerald’s class when we were six or seven, the two kids everybody mocked were Moira and Elsie. None of the boys would sit next to them and the greatest insult imaginable was to be told “You go with Elsie,” or “You go with Moira”.

There was also George, who was so skinny he got a bottle of free milk every day though he almost never managed to drink it all. George would invent birthday parties for himself but when the kids turned up with their presents they were unceremoniously shooed away.

Billy was the class troublemaker and Dennis, famously, a few years later, actually fought with the headmaster. What a scandal that was.

I thought about these classmates of more than half a century ago when I listened recently to a group of young parents talking about autism and Asperger’s syndrome, which you hear a lot about these days. They are conditions, which impel their hosts to deal with the world in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Half a million British children, one out of every 100, are autistic. And you can add several thousand adults since a survey just found that one per cent of grown-ups meet the criteria for an autistic spectrum disorder.

It’s not a sickness, the young mothers say, much less a mental impairment, just a developmental disability. There are obvious signs — inability to recognise social signals or empathise with other people’s feelings, to understand jokes or spot sarcasm and irony.

Figures of speech (“she’s got a chip on her shoulder”) baffle them. But often these kids are of above-average intelligence and good at mathematics, logic, art or music.

Teenager Samuel Osmond has a note-perfect memory, which enables him to master complex piano pieces in a few hours, though he cannot read music and has never had lessons. “It comes easily to me,” he said. “I hear the music and memorise it, each individual note.”

Samuel first absorbed Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata then moved onto Chopin, recently performing in public a 10-minute piece consisting of more than a thousand notes, which he had memorised from one hearing. Music teacher Cecil DuValle believes his pupil has an undiagnosed mild form of autism.

On another part of the spectrum, there is a deep-down need for routine and repetition. One little boy saw his teacher every day, right there in the classroom. When once he encountered her in the corridor outside, the boy was amazed. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.

His little pal is fascinated by washing machines. Visiting friends for a sleepover, he first demands 20 minutes watching the laundry going round and round.

Now I must confess I’ve always found that low hum and circular swishing quite soothing myself. And now that I know adults can be autistic, too, I can forgive my friends for yawning when I tell them my health complaints, for changing the subject when I enthuse about Mozart or Newcastle United and for failing to laugh at my jokes.

Maybe Elsie and Moira were not really stupid and smelly, George was not a fantasist, Billy not an outlaw nor Dennis a thug. Maybe they were just autistic in some way we didn’t understand, for certainly nobody would have dreamed of it then. Then, you were either stupid or bad. Or in George’s case, a born liar. Poor kids!

I suspect we are all on the spectrum somewhere, just being human in our own slightly nutty way.

http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/Being+different+The+marvels+of+the+autistic+world/440808/1166844/-/ku68nlz/-/

by on May. 21, 2011 at 1:25 PM
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