07 September 2009

Life vs. Art

Those of you who follow my reading list (at the end of each of post) will have noticed a little while ago I read and enjoyed 'The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie' by Jennifer Ashley. A Victorian romance about a hero who suffers from Asperger’s or high functioning autism. The story touches on the sometimes narrow gap between obsession and madness.

Lord Ian Mackenzie has been out of the asylum for a few years. His father had him committed at the age of nine, ostensibly for his uncontrollable rages, inability to meet another's gaze, and obsessive tendencies. His brother released him after their father's death, and now Ian uses his uncanny knack for finance to keep the family in wads of cash. Not only in finance does Ian have savant like capabilities, he is incredibly gifted in languages, mathematics, and music. He is also capable of memorizing documents, maps, and conversations word for word, despite not necessarily understanding them.

Despite his problems he is surprisingly well suited to the role of hero. His mental issues highlight a common romance trope : a hero who is physically strong yet emotionally vulnerable, passionately devoted to the heroine yet tortured inside, determined to protect those he loves yet firmly in need of rescue himself.

Something that struck me while reading this story came home again after reading a BBC magazine article on the portrayal of autism in fiction. Does art really imitate life? Do people with autism always have an amazing intellectual skill?

The article discusses how autistic characters are always shown to be specially gifted in some way. Rainman is perhaps the most well known example I can think of, and Lord Ian the most recent. The answer of course is no. "By far, the majority of people with autism do not have any kind of savant ability." The article continues, "the current estimate is that one or two in 200 people with an autism spectrum disorder have a savant talent, according to the National Autistic Society, although the exact numbers are still unknown."

So why are they portrayed that way?
Jonathan Kaufman, president of Disability Works in the US sums it up: "It doesn't seem to be as bad to be severely autistic if you're also skilled at maths or music. If it seems to be that with your disability comes an extraordinary ability, it takes away the worst aspects of being disabled."

Which then raises another question: how does the depiction in art (movies & books etc...) effect the public, and closer to home, the parents of children with some level of autistic spectrum? Particularly parents whose children have no savant expertise?
The end of the article, in particular the comments section of the article, address more on this last question and is an interesting read.

Music: Jarvis Cocker
Currently reading: 'Atlantis Unleashed' by Alyssa Day


Mary Ricksen said...

My niece is autistic so this subject interests me. I wish she could function better, she is on the low functioning side of the disease.
It's just so sad.
It's strange to see how differently individuals are affected.

Beth Caudill said...

My children edge around the autism spectrum and both are smart but can't interact with people. The oldest is particularly bright and gets bored. Which only makes his behavior worse. The problem is the school system doesn't have things in place to deal with this. If it isn't academically oriented...they don't know how to deal with the child. Very frustrating and requires us to train teachers each year on the best practices for dealing with him and us to make multiple trips into school each week.

For example, most of the practices are to give silent lunches or shorten recess when he breaks a classroom rule. This won't help him at all. He's only going to disrupt class even more. A better system for him is to give him a goal and give him a reward. Reward vs. Consequence system. All the teachers want Consequences but he doesn't learn from them....it's a part of the medical condition. But whether its a sticker or a piece of candy, he'll work to get that reward.

Every year we have to wait for the teacher to get frustrated (because they won't listen to us at the beginning of the year because they have to try their system first) and then get it instituted. It isn't fair to my son and ultimately he is the one who suffers. We have yet to get the school to do anything that will carry over from one year to another because his condition doesn't interfere with his learning - actually I'm not sure the school system is challenging him enough but that's another issue.

Sandra Hyatt said...

Our school systems seem to work best for students within the average spectrum. Anything outside of that and in most cases it's up to parents to advocate as best they can for their child.

I haven't read Lord Ian Mackenzie yet - wondering how he could make a hero right for a heroine - but have heard only good things about it, so will get to it one day.

elaine cantrell said...

My grandson is autistic, but he has no special abilities. He's high functioning so we are blessed in that way.

I scrolled down and watched your cat video. Hilarious.

marye.ulrich said...

The thing to remember about the autism spectrum is that it is a spectrum. Some of the people who have savant characteristics also have severe challenges in self-help or communication or ....

Think about Temple Grandin, she has a PhD and teaches in the university about animals, her ideas are used in every stockyard in the world. Yet, some of my colleagues tell about how she would smell and wear the most outlandish cowboy outfits when she was the keynote speaker at conferences. Her book, "Thinking in Pictures" is a classic on how she and some others think. Donna Williams also has written about how she learns and has helped others.

My son has autism and according to tests is in the lowest 1% intellectual functioning. A "community based curriculum," which was the answer for my son.

Our school years were a struggle, but nothing compared to his life as an adult. IDEA gives parents the rights of due process and the child gets an IEP. We suffered greatly under the Bush administration and lost many benefits and rights but hopefully people with disabilities and their families can now get more help.

Partners in Policymaking http://www.partnersinpolicymaking.com/ is a terrific national program. I cannot say enough good things about it. Aut-com.org (National Autism Committee) is another great resource.
God Bless. Mary

P.L. Parker said...

One of my best friend's sons has autisim, also on low functioning side of disease. I agree about the problems with school, etc. She fights constantly to get some kind of education for her son. So sad.

Sylvie said...

Very informative and thought provoking blog. Thanks to everyone who commented for sharing.


Debra St. John said...

This is an interesting topic. As a teacher, I come across students with aspergers or other forms of autism. It's definitely a challenge and a learning process in the classroom, for both the student and the teacher. Luckily I work in a private school outside the public realm and our commuication between grades is top notch, so there does tend to be carry-over from one year to the next. We also have a fabulous resource teacher who provides invaluable help and guidance.