Penetrating the Walls of Autism

Autism, famously fuzzy, seems to defy most attempts at definition, treatment, understanding. It’s often easier to spot the ideas and writing about it that don’t make sense than to find and fully embrace those that do. That’s what makes writers such as Emily Willingham and Steve Silberman and Amy Harmon so invaluable: They show us the possibilities within the confounds; that the fuzziness is richly textured.

So too does a new story by Gareth Cook*, a Pulitzer-winning journalist whose article “The Autism Advantage” appeared today in the early-online version of this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. This wonderfully smart, richly reported, finely turned piece explores with unusual skill what may be autism’s central paradox — the difficulty of discerning a person who meets the world through such different perceptual, social, and communicative prisms. Take, for instance, this story from the principal of a school that has embraced the task of teaching children with autism:

The Specialisterne school uses Legos, too. Frank Paulsen, a red-haired man with a thin beard who is the school’s principal, told me about a session he once led in which he handed out small Lego boxes to a group of young men and asked them to build something that showed their lives. When the bricks had been snapped together, Paulsen asked each boy to say a few words. One boy didn’t want to talk, saying his construction was “nothing.” When Paulsen gathered his belongings to leave, however, the boy, his teacher by his side, seemed to want to stay. Paulsen tried to draw him out but failed. So Paulsen excused himself and stood up.

The boy grabbed Paulsen’s arm. “Actually,” he said, “I think I built my own life.”

Paulsen eased back into his seat.

“This is me,” the boy said, pointing to a skeleton penned in by a square structure with high walls. A gray chain hung from the back wall, and a drooping black net formed the roof. To the side, outside the wall, two figures — a man with a red baseball cap and a woman raising a clear goblet to her lips — stood by a translucent blue sphere filled with little gold coins. That, the boy continued, represented “normal life.” In front of the skeleton were low walls between a pair of tan pillars, and a woman with a brown pony tail looked in, brandishing a yellow hairbrush. “That is my mom, and she is the only one who is allowed in the walls.”

The boy’s teacher was listening, astonished: In the years she’d known him, she told Paulsen later, she had never heard him discuss his inner life. Paulsen talked to the boy, now animated, for a quarter of an hour about the walls, and Paulsen suggested that perhaps the barriers could be removed. “I can’t take down the walls,” the boy concluded, “because there is so much danger outside of them.”

Get the whole thing at The Autism Advantage.

*Disclosure: I first came to know Gareth’s work when he was editing the Ideas column at the Boston Globe. Later he took over editing of Mind Matters, a Scientific American online department I founded. And yet later I signed a book contract with an editor who happens to be married to Mr. Cook. I feel confident I’d be highly impressed with this autism feature anyway. The Lego story alone: It’s not every day one comes across something that beautiful.

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