SUNDAY was World Autism Awareness Day; an attempt to raise awareness about a condition that affects nearly one in a hundred people in Britain today.
Autistic people see the world differently from other people and process information in a different way. For some autistic people, the world may appear overwhelming; others find that the rest of us struggle to understand them and their reaction to things, which may well be different from other people.
Mark Haddon’s book ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’ a tale told by Christopher, a 13 year old lad with Asperger’s Syndrome, (a form of autism) introduced the condition to a whole new audience.
The author, who based the story on a number of young people he got to know in special school, attributes its success to a number of factors – one of which is that, as an outsider, the character of Christopher invites us to cast a mirror up to ourselves. Christopher’s simple wisdom, is scattered liberally, Forrest Gump-like, but with infinitely more subtlety and panache, through the story. It has the effect of bringing us up short and making us question our own values and assumptions.
Christopher is a gifted mathematician who is more at home in the world of numbers than the real world. He can understand patterns in numbers - they are always reliable - but patterns of behaviour elude him.
“I think prime numbers are like life,” he says, “They are very logical, but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.” Mark gives us a tantalising glimpse of Christopher’s world, and through his eyes, reveals an eyeful of our own.
Those who see the world differently are always challenging and usually threatening. They disturb our sense of security and call into question things we know and take for granted. The French impressionist painters, now mainstream and popular, were once derided and ridiculed. Those who thought the earth revolved the sun were once burnt at the stake. A memorial in The Close records the names of martyrs in Salisbury who forfeited their lives challenging those in political power. And it isn’t so long ago that we locked people in asylums because they frightened rather than threatened us. Thankfully, times have changed.
Or have they? I write this as news comes in of a racially motivated attack by 30 people in Croydon which leaves a young innocent asylum seeker fighting for his life. The seeds of vilification of those who sought refuge here in Britain that were sown so liberally in the Brexit campaign are now bearing their inevitable, bitter fruit.
We can seek to understand those who are different; we can embrace them because they inspire us, illuminate our lives and enrich our society. Or like our medieval forbears we can verbally assault, attack and incite others to turn culpable thought into pitiful action.