The charm of special powers … Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man. Photo: Moviestore Collection/ Rex
My son doesn’t. He’s 16, is non-verbal and his life abilities are rudimentary. He’s on one part of the autistic spectrum. Rain Man sits somewhere else on a little bit made from celluloid.
I don’t expect the whole population to trawl through reams of data, instance analyzes and science newspapers on autism, but at least get to understand the basics. Let’s start with a simple question. Are all neurotypical people- those without a diagnosis of autism- the same? If your answer is yes, proceed directly to the nearest Borg recruiting office. If your answer is no, pat yourself on the back( although it doesn’t make you a genius ).
This is what it does to me- I can’t help it. I get facetious. When, for instance, we were calmly queueing to pay for some apples in Waitrose and my son decided to use them for baseball practice, pitching them wildly into the neighbouring McDonald’s, did anyone smile and think,” Oh, bless him, he’s autistic “? Or when we were wrestling on the floor as I tried to get him to stop attacking me, or when everyone’s food in a eatery is fair game- and I don’t merely entailed on our table- “were not receiving” applause , no One Show researchers begging me to bring him on for a demonstration or recreation of his baseball glories. And I’m not sure his naked trampolining is going to earn him an Olympic medal anytime soon.
Given that it’s simply bad form to tell a well-meaning stranger where to run, I have often resorted to being facetious. When my son was six, I took him to watch one of his older cousins paying football and two girls approached and began talking to him. Of course, they got properly cold-shouldered and inquired of me:” Why does he never say anything ?”
To which I replied:” He does, but only to very pretty daughters .”
But it’s not the way I’ve always dealt with it. As part of a dedicated team raising my son, explaining him to strangers has been exhausting.
So, most often over the last 16 years, I’ve been a model of polite solicitude. Like a strolling GP surgery pamphlet, I’ve divided my reactions into easily digested chunks, subheadings:” What is the Autistic Spectrum ?” and” About Diagnosis “. At other periods, I’ve countered pub banter with” No! Only because your boss is a rude, arrogant shit who won’t look you in the eye, doesn’t mean he’s autistic .” It sometimes feels like an endless battle.
This gets me so irritated because good info is out there in plain sight. On Twitter, on Facebook are millions of genuine first-hand experiences and real, of-the-moment findings. It is thus a 21 st-century species of ignorance, one that masquerades as inquisitiveness, to glean “knowledge” from media that is intended to entertain to form one’s opinion of autism. It is from the “well-drawn” character who fills us with wonder- whether it be standing next to Tom Cruise as he counts cards, or inducing us laugh with their complete lack of social understanding that “misunderstandings” can arise.
Plot devices and stereotypes are not real. You cannot reduce autism to genre conventions , because every person with an autism diagnosis is different. My son is me with a particularly tough veneer of autism: he’s a little bit lazy, determines most things hilarious and is given to bouts of self-injurious behaviour. But he’s not less than me- in any way. He’s not less.
And if you took the trouble to know him, you’d realise that in most routes he is more. That’s the kind of knowledge that everyone needs to have.
It hurts me to have to write this. I don’t like having to speak on his behalf, but he isn’t able to and I detest having to rely on supposition. It would be easier for me to state that he couldn’t care less. But I can’t say that because he can’t tell me. It hurts less when I can provide him with a blithe, devil-may-care attitude to other people’s opinions of him.
Am I overreacting and being chippy? My son’s also Jewish. Would it be OK if a stranger asked in polite conversation whether he was fond of fund? Or asked an equally ignorant is the issue of a Muslim father with regard to one of his children? Of course it would not.
The question,” Does he have a special talent ?” is not sinister in itself, but the ignorance behind it is, because it speaks of a world where just being human and getting by is not sufficient get noticed- a world where even the most vulnerable in national societies “re going to have to” aspire to Britain’s Got Talent to be seen of value.
Shtum by Jem Lester is published by Orion Paperbacks( PS8. 99 ). To buy a transcript for PS7. 64, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min. p& p of PS1. 99.