Lisa Genova on Autism and Love, Anthony

Love Anthony is now in paperback, which means, among other things, that it has a new cover design.  I love the new cover.  I think it’s eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing, and the image is even highly relevant to the story.  Books covers are so important.  It’s the first thing a potential reader sees and can be the singular, pivotal reason why someone picks that book up and decides to see what’s inside or alternatively decides to walk away and choose something else.  The entire content of book can be deemed desirable or undesirable based on a quick glance at the cover.  So many unspoken assumptions are made about the story on the inside based on the cover on the outside.

This has me thinking about autism.  I’ve been speaking about autism at book events, and there are a lot of false assumptions circulating out there, especially among people not directly affected by autism—so many misconceptions based on a quick glance at someone’s “outside cover” with little or no experience with the “inside story.”  Many of these misconceptions have been told and retold for so long, they’ve reached an almost urban myth status.

  • Nonverbal people with autism don’t understand language.
  • People with autism are cognitively impaired, or less nicely put, mentally retarded.
  • People with autism don’t feel love.

Most people I talk with who aren’t directly affected by autism often admit to me that the sum total of what they know about it was gleaned from Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man.

So let’s “open the book” and debunk these myths.

 

Myth #1: Nonverbal people with autism don’t understand language.

It’s possible that for some nonverbal autistic people, language is not intelligible.  But what if it is?  Can you know for sure?  I think it’s safer and far more humane to assume that all nonverbal people with autism have inner voices.  They understand what you’re saying.  And they are listening.

I’d like to share a couple of examples here of nonverbal autistic people, heroes really, who have battled and broken through the silence to reveal their inner voices.

Carly Fleishman: “I want people to understand that autistic people are people and we all have an inner voice.”

 

Elizabeth Bonker: “On the dark side is the traditional belief that we have no language. Free your minds from disbelief.”

 

Myth #2: People with autism are cognitively impaired.

Some people with autism do have some additional cognitive challenges, but IQ tests that rely on expression of language or pointing, outputs that can be unavailable or severely impaired in some autistic people, aren’t going to be sensitive enough to reveal to the intelligence that might lie within.

Autism does not equal unintelligent.  Autism does not equal unable to learn.  In fact, some of the smartest people living on the planet today have Asperger’s–Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet, to name two.  It’s thought that if Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, and Wolfgang Mozart were alive today, they’d be diagnosed on the spectrum.  A pretty smart crowd, if you ask me.

 

Myth #3: Autistic people don’t feel love.

I recently did a book event with Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree, on World Autism Day in Toronto, and he admitted to having this misapprehension prior to doing the research for his book.

It’s easy to see where this preconception comes from, especially if viewed from a distance, “from the cover” so to speak.  If a child can’t say “I love you,” if he doesn’t like to be hugged, if he can’t make eye contact and exchange all the magic that can happen in a shared gaze, if love can’t be reciprocated in the ways in which we traditionally show and feel it, is love there?

It is.  Without question.

All of the parents I know and spoke with about autism love their autistic kids and feel loved in return.  And I’ve witnessed it—in a knowing smile, in an exuberant hand flapping, in an unspoken energy, in how hard these kids work to please their parents.

 

Myth #4: People with autism are poor social communicators.

Wait, you’re thinking, this one can’t be a myth.  This is the actual clinical description of autism.  According to DSM IV, autism is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive, restrictive behaviors.  Even people with autism who can speak have trouble communicating, especially with comprehension of double meaning, facial expression, and body language.  This deficit in social communication is a DEFINING symptom of autism.

So if it’s a defining symptom, how can it be a myth?

Last year, I attended the Tucson Festival of Books to promote Love Anthony.  In addition to the two panels I was on with other fiction writers, I was scheduled to be on a speaking panel with John Elder Robison.  John has written three books—Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby.  John has Asperger’s.

About ten minutes before our scheduled time to begin, the room was already filled to capacity (300) with people standing in the hall, willing to stay and only listen.  John arrived, and I introduced myself.  He said hello, gave me a courtesy, fleeting moment of eye contact, and then he paced.

We were supposed to sit side-by-side at a table before set microphones and cards bearing our names and next to a moderator, but John wasn’t going to be able to sit still.  He needed to stand and move.  The organizers adjusted, and I decided to join him and stand, too.  Meanwhile, John continued moving, touching everything on the table as he passed it.

I do a lot of speaking, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it.  One of the challenges in speaking in front of an audience of 300 is to make everyone feel included, like they’re part of an intimate conversation.  It involves not just getting up and talking but talking TO PEOPLE, engaging them in what you have to say, sharing an experience together.  In short, it involves social communication.

And here is John, pacing around with Asperger’s.

So I thought to myself, “Okay, Lisa.  You’re probably going to have carry this hour.  He’s not going to be able to do this.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  He was AWESOME!  He was smart, funny, dynamic, and incredibly entertaining.  HE was the one who could’ve carried the whole hour (and pretty much did).  After our presentation, the line of people waiting to connect with him personally and have books signed far exceeded the line of people in front of me.

So there you go.  John has autism, AND he’s an exceptional communicator.  Myth busted.

The great lesson in all of this has been told to me over and over by parents of children with autism.  “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.”  Or, put another way—please don’t judge a book by its cover.

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1 comment so far


  1. I’ve recently been working as a part time paraprofessional for the special education classes in my school district. The children I’ve worked with have different levels of autism. I’ve found all these children to loving and trusting. Just because they can’t necessarily articulate their thoughts clearly in speech or physical movement, you can tell that they are listening, absorbing and processing everything around them. I was lucky to have been asked to join them in a joint collaboration with a class of 5th graders, as the two classes joined to color Easter eggs.
    The children were so happy to be with their new friends and peers doing something together that the room practically light up with their enthusiasm. Everyone had a great time, all the kids were well behaved and left with a feeling of a job well done. Plus everyone got to take home eggs they decorated themselves. 🙂 Never judge a book by its cover, you never know what treasure you’ll find buried inside.

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