Reaching One Thousand – Rachel Robertson
This is an autobiography of a mum of an autistic boy/biography of an autistic boy, although there have been details changed to preserve anonymity. The majority of the book centres around the boy, Ben, during his childhood and finishes when Ben is around 11 years old. The book doesn’t really follow a chronological pattern – there is a bit of jumping back and forth but not so much as to cause any confusion. Rather than being laid out in a time or date pattern, the chapters and their contents are more organised around ideas or concepts.
“You’re lucky he’s so good looking”, said a friend, “People will be much nicer to him because of that. They’ll make more allowances at school.”
“Maybe people will be nice to him because they like him”, I replied.
“Oh yes, of course!”
Beauty as God’s consolation prize.
This section jumped out at me because I had come across something else involving people commenting on an autistic boy being so good looking, a YouTube video. Now I won’t link to it because I’m not comfortable sending more people to the video but it was a video put online of an autistic teenage boy who was non-verbal and in the video in question was self-injuring. He was also wearing an adult nappy which could be seen in the video. I could go into a long debate over the ethics of the video being uploaded but this is not where I’m going with this aside. The relevance to the quote here is that in amongst the comments were a number to the effect of “It’s just a shame, he’s so good looking” or “At least he’s so handsome”. For me, those comments pretty much get interpreted as:
- Oh, they’re autistic but at least they’re good looking! (the consolation prize from the excerpt above)
- It’s a shame they’re autistic because they’re good looking.
Either way you frame it, it’s pretty offensive and rude. I’m surprised this hasn’t cropped up before in the reviews (although we did have the “they’re autistic, but they’re very intelligent!” from Making Sense of Senses) because I have come across these kinds of comments a few times before.
Anyway, going back to the review. This autobiography actually does a good job of tracking and telling the development of the mother’s views on autism – she goes from a parent scared of autism and what it means for her son, influenced by the media and myths surrounding autism:
In the way that people with cancer are told to ‘fight’ the disease, so too are parents of autistic children told to ‘fight’ autism, to rid the body and self of the autism that afflicts the child. I wonder if the parent of a child with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy would be told to work hard to eradicate the condition from their child?
to someone who comes to accept autism for what it is, and talks about the neurodiversity movement and the impact that it has had on her viewpoint:
When I read the words, ‘I am not a puzzle, I am a person’ and the goals of the Autistic Liberation Front, I felt like cheering out loud. I have always felt uncomfortable about the idea that Ben can be ‘cured’, ‘recovered’ or ‘behaviourally modified’. I want him to be himself, whoever that is.
Robertson writes fluidly between topics and details her interactions, moments and days with Ben with such detail that it is genuinely interesting to read. From Ben’s world of numbers and the strong place it has in his life, through to the use of the Frog and Toad stories as a kind of ‘Social Story’ to help Ben make sense of the world, all the tales are interesting. She writes about interactions with other people, and their help or lack of, and their reactions to and behaviour around Ben.
Ben’s words and Ben’s own views are put forward in Robertson’s writing and he is consulted for his opinion on sections of the book. He is not portrayed as precious or an angel or as a burden or a challenge to be othercome but as an autistic boy trying to figure out the world around him and providing a little insight into how he tries to do so.
Obviously, I don’t agree with everything Robertson wrote, there is a section in particular where she talks about “sad little boys, unable to connect” which is a presentation of the stereotype of autism, but some of these are before she develops her knowledge and acceptance of autism so it is an honest account of how she felt that allows us to see how her views changed over time. Overall though, the honesty and acceptance in this book places it highly under the category of parent biographies.
Is it worth reading?
For parents yes, it is an interesting, diverse and accepting account of autism. For professionals or autistic people it might not have the same appeal.