Thursday, June 02, 2005

Make Me Normal - C4 Thursday 2nd June 2005

Watching 'Make Me Normal', part of C4's 'Only Human' series gives a raw insight into various forms of autism.
The probing of the camera displayed not only how autistic children fail to understand and deal with their own emotions, but their intrinsic lack of understanding of other people's emotions too.
The camera selected several choice scenes; comfort in routine and fear in the unknown. At times I felt these very individual young adults were pigeon-holed; a relatively normal moment followed by a 'here we go again' scene, usually explained by a quirk - a new bus route or a wonky label. It's true that autistic children tend to absorb themselves in a particular area, but this documentary painted it more as an obsession than a field of expertise.
As one of the largest state schools for autistic children, the Spa School seemed very small through the eyes of the five or so teenagers portrayed in this documentary. I was reminded of 'The Titicut Follies', Wiseman's 1967 documentary revealing the inner workings of a psychiatric institution. This was not due to any barbaric practice, more an issue of consent. Bearing in mind these are not only children but 'impaired', one wonders the difficulties of filming in the Spa School.
The documentary emphasised the School's ethos that an autistic child has a 'need to know' of their condition, and the headmistress' belief this should be drummed in to her pupils. I felt this held them back in some respects; they could always blame their autism for their problems, making them permanent and unchangeable. It also increased dependence on the Spa School, highlighted by the emphasis on one pupil in particular soon to finish at the school and his incompetence at handling the world outside the school gates.
An interesting take was the examination of adolescent desires - for both emotional and sexual relationships. One girl craves the normality and everyday social pleasures taken for granted by the likes of us - having a drink in the pub, reciprocation of attraction; another boy hopes for a girlfriend and basic physical contact. This is an aspect not touched on in Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' (review follows). It must be very depressing to envisage a life devoid of complex emotional relationships; sheltered, misunderstood and restricted.
The documentary made an attempt at explaining how one boy's loss of his mother affected his behaviour. It was touching to see the Headmistress attempt to bridge the emotional chasm but frustrating that she seemed unable to relate on his level - hiding in a toybox that prevented scrutiny and allowed more freedom of expression.
Perhaps we could use not patience and conditioning to our social norms, but compromise and integration with autistic children. Schools such as this clearly work hard and achieve much with their children, but the outside world should 'need to know' about autism just as much to reduce its fear and ignorance.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Review
Mark Haddon

Christopher, an AspergerÂ’s sufferer, sets out on a voyage of self discovery, realisation and ultimately independence when he discovers his neighbourÂ’s dog speared with a pitchfork late one evening.

Haddon describes the delicate web linking exasperation, mistrust, adolescence, patience and the intrinsically restraining subsistence of autism. The reader is thrust into the midst of ChristopherÂ’s world: initially confusing, things begin to swim rapidly into focus. Soon we can anticipate what is around the corner, with Christopher still oblivious. It adds to the dramatic tension in the book, and makes each of ChristopherÂ’s comprehensions all the more pleasing and emotionally satisfying.

As the reader, we want Christopher to succeed. He is a hero, cocooned from the world around him, yet plunged into a bewildering and forbidding environment. He has his own hurdles and accomplishments, and eventually compromises.

In its original format, one might expect it to be a childÂ’s book. Its unique style, from the mathematical footnotes to the prime-numbered chapters immediately sets it apart, and provides mystique and intrigue for the reader.

Those expecting a book laden with difficult medical terminology will be surprised to encounter a narrative from the perspective of an autistic young man, perhaps a difficult theme, but one that Haddon achieves with aplomb.

This book stands out from the outset. ‘The Curious Incident’ has wide appeal, to both the medical and lay - drama and disease in equal measure. It is both a murder mystery and an attempt at understanding a peculiar condition, an issue prevalent with the current furore surrounding the MMR vaccine debate.

1 comment:

Giskin said...

Thanks very much for this, aj. There was a very interesting item on Midweek on R4 on Wednesday. Temple Grandin, who is autistic, has found parallels with her condition and animal behaviour. She is advisor to the meat trade on humane slaughter of animals based on her understanding of what triggers fear. Her book is called 'Animals in Translation'. Details of the programme at: