Sunday, August 25, 2013

The latest "normal child inside"

Just yesterday, a couple of days after I wrote my post on the "Normal Child Inside Fallacy," I find myself reading about yet another nonverbal, autistic child who, despite all we know about the deep brain differences in autism and its fundamental nature as a disorder of social communication, somehow emerges as communicatively normal.

The child in question is Naoki Higashida, a Japanese 13-year-old whose book, "The Reason I Jump," has just been translated into English and is reviewed in this week's NY Times Book Review. According to reviewer Sally Tisdale, Higashida wrote by "spelling out words on a Japanese alphabet letter board."

The book focuses on Higashida's difficulties with sensory processing, organizing itself around questions like “Why do you speak in that peculiar way?”, “Why do you like spinning?”, and, of course, "Why do you like to Jump". On this last topic, Higashida's book says:

The motion makes me want to change into a bird and fly off to some faraway place. But constrained by ourselves and by the people around us, all we can do is tweet-tweet, flap our wings and hop around in a cage.
Apparently, Higashida can type on a computer and read aloud what he has written. Given this, one would hope for a chapter called "Why are you considered nonverbal when you can write and read out loud?"

In Tisdale's words, Higadisha also "can’t remember rules, sit still or make sense of time." Nonetheless, he is "bright and thoughtful" and "maintains a blog and has written other books." His American publisher calls him a “motivational speaker.”

What do we make of yet another individual who supposedly meets the criteria for autism and can't speak extemporaneously but who somehow writes with a level of introspection and a non-literal literary style far beyond anything ever been written by the best-known, most studied autistic writer whose high functioning autism is totally without question???

In making sense of Higashida in particular, Tisdale reports, there's an additional layer of uncertainty:
The book comes to English readers through the passionate efforts of David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas” and the father of an autistic child. Mitchell and his wife, KA Yoshida, provided the translation.
The book, Tisdale notes, contains such English colloquialisms as "It really gets me down.” Did the original Japanese sound as neurotypical?

And how much is David Mitchell's translation colored by his personal agenda and wishful thinking?
Mitchell believes the book is proof that the standard definition of autism is wrong, that autism’s obvious restrictions of socialization and communication “are not symptoms of autism but consequences.” Higashida, he has also said, is “more of a writer than I am.”
As Tisdale writes:
... Unfortunately, it’s impossible to sort out what is Higashida here and what is Mitchell. The two have never met in person, and Higashida had almost no involvement in the English edition. Mitchell has said that Yoshida “did the heavy lifting” from the Japanese, and that he “provided the stylistic icing on the cake.”
But how much does the icing flavor the cake? Tisdale, herself the parent of an autistic child, concludes her review with this powerful point:
Mitchell writes that reading “The Reason I Jump,” he “felt as if, for the first time, our own son was talking to us about what was happening inside his head.” No parent of an autistic person — and I include myself here — can help longing for such a chance, and looking for it wherever we can. We have to be careful about turning what we find into what we want.
Whatever is really going on here, Higashida no more represents the norm for autism than the similarly nonverbal and yet "introspective" and "poetic" Carly and Tito do. And yet the author(s) and translator(s) of Higashida's book--who constantly use the 1st person plural to speak for "us kids with autism"--present their depictions of Higashida as containing deep revelations about autism in general.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I agree with you that there is no "normal child inside". You say that he does not represent the norm for autism; what do you think represents the norm for autism? Is there a norm for autism? :)

Katharine Beals said...

Since autism is a spectrum, I'm not sure there's really a norm. But along the spectrum, there's a tight connection between Joint Attention behaviors and linguistic skills (including writing, figurative language, and poetry). So normally a child who rarely makes eye contact or otherwise monitors what other people are attending to has very weak language skills. There simply is no way to attach meaning to words--and jumpstart language development--unless you are able intuit what speakers are referring to (as neurotypical infants are able to do).

Lone Cynic said...

Tito, Carly, Naoki-they're obviously shams! Of course these silent autistic kids aren't writing these gorgeous novels and poems out of nowhere. The 20/20 show on Carly was like a parody, a sentimental joke: would anyone in their right mind believe that phony father? These parents are obviously staging these revelations, writing the books/poems/sentimental slop. Why doesn't anyone question this? Pull down the curtain and reveal the great Oz as a fraud? Or I am not aloud to say this? When it comes to children, must we all be salivating believers?

Bruagh said...

What troubles me most about the Carly Fleischman and Naoki Higashida is how blatantly and shamelessly they are being exploited. And it’s their parents and caretakers who exploit them. After all, parents know the meaning of an autistic diagnosis: an autistic child, by definition, lacks self-analysis and empathy. Neurological problems make focus and social interaction extremely difficult, such that language acquisition is a tremendous challenge; after all, language is a system of social communication. If autistic children cannot listen or make eye contact, it’s difficult to attach words to meaning, to retain vocabulary and grammatical structure and even more difficult to master written language. So how do these silent children manage to construct sophisticated, complex, varied literary sentences? What’s more, how do autistic children have the perspective to discuss their inner feelings, their “selfhood?”
The answer is ventriloquism. Their parents design and monitor elaborate alphabet boards, train their children CBT strategies and Pavlovian rewards; but little do we see of the actual writing process. The books sound very adult; the language of Carly’s confessional reflections ring with her father’s phrasing and vocabulary. But in the video when she’s shown “actually” typing, she exhausts herself forming broken phrases, and these with an assistant proffering a chip. Naoki Higashida’s mother has the good sense not to show her son’s process; at any rate, it’s the book’s “loose translation” by David Mitchell and his wife, told in a British schoolboy tone (Mitchell’s “stylistic icing on the cake”) that’s on the best-seller list. (Many degrees of separation from what Higashida originally poked out on his mother’s syllabary/alphabet board.)
These writings explain who Carly and Naoki “really are.” They don’t mean to be weird or annoy people with their “stimming” or yelling; they know how crazy they seem to others. Because deep within their awkward, distracted autistic bodies they do understand what’s going on around them. They feel, care love, and as Carly says (or rather, her resonant, adult voice-over does) they “shine” and have “incredible potential.”
The introspective autistic novels sell in droves. Naoki still is unable to converse, but he has a successful career as a motivational speaker. Carly, mute and spastic, is applauded on scores of interview and talk shows, her prewritten responses read “in her voice.”(See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBpLGE_Rl1w as Carly smiles and nods and pinky-shakes, but as her sophisticated comments are read aloud, she twists and droops and hardly seems to comprehend them.
The “normal child inside” fallacy is denying the reality of Carly and Naoki’s condition. By turning them into miracle children, it ignores who they “really are”–autistic-and the challenges they face.