Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism

It is customary to write book reviews near a book's actual publication date. Sometimes, however, a book comes to your attention years after its first appearance on bookstore shelves and is so vital and fresh that it seems brand new. Such was the case for me with Paul Collins' Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism.

The book's enigmatic title is based on a phrase used by theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who would put down colleagues by calling them "not even wrong"—their answers were so off target as to be irrelevant. Collins applies the phrase to people with autism, whose frame of reference is so far off from that of a typical person that their perceptions, answers, and ideas can be described as neither right nor wrong, but something else entirely. Collins writes:
"Only a person working from the same shared set of expectations could give a wrong answer. The autist is working on a different problem with a different set of parameters; they are not even wrong."
The book chronicles Collins' personal realization that his very young son has autism and the journey that he and his wife take to communicate with and teach him. What elevates the book from being merely a touching account of one family, is that Collins jumps back and forth between stories of his family and stories about autists throughout history.

These stories—of mostly undiagnosed individuals—are fascinating, beginning with that of Peter the Wild Boy, an 18th century feral boy found in Germany and brought to England as a kind of mascot by King George I.

Then there is Henry Darger, who kept a detailed daily record of Chicago's weather from 1957-67 and penned a 15,145-page typewritten novel. Darger followed this up with a more-than-5,000-page autobiography, of which more than 4,500 of those pages focus on weather.

Collins also writes about Darius McCollum, arrested 19 times for impersonating a transit employee in New York City, working alongside actual transit workers and driving trains for weeks at a time. McCollum was ultimately thrown into maximum security prison and confined to a cell—a cell on which he hung a sign reading "Train out of service."

There are many more stories as well, stories of both achievements and failures, and Collins brings them to life with tremendous warmth and respect. He writes not only about the people whom he terms "autists," but also those who work with autists and have made it their life's work to study their condition.

Not Even Wrong has become one of my favorite, if not the favorite, book on autism that I have read. Easy to read and beautifully written, Collins' book manages to capture the essence of autism. By focusing on the details and the individuals, much like an autist might do, Collins gently shows us the whole.

I read this book mostly in 25-minute increments during my autistic son's therapy sessions. Last Saturday, I sat on a couch across from the mother of one of the children in my son's social skills group as I read the final few pages, including the following:
"Autists are the ultimate square pegs, and the problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It's that you're destroying the peg."
I held back tears as I thought about my son, my own square peg, and how much I want him to find the hole that fits him—not the other way around. I am grateful to Paul Collins and his tremendous book for taking me on this particular adventure in autism. I look forward to seeing where my son's own adventures will take him.