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 here 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.