Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: The Anti-Romantic Child

There are a lot of books written by mothers about raising their special needs children, some excellent, some not so great, most somewhere in the middle. The Anti-Romantic Child, A Story of Unexpected Joy , by Priscilla Gilman is both beautifully written, inspiring and dramatic, and also a bit different than the other books in this genre. That’s due to the author, who is not only a mother, but also a former professor of English literature. Gilman weaves together her interest in Wordworth’s poetry with her experiences in raising her special needs son in a way that brings deeper meaning to both.

The Anti-Romantic Child is about Gilman’s son Benj, a boy exhibiting hyperlexia, as well as autistic characteristics, such as rigid behaviors and deficits in social skills. Hyperlexia is characterized by interest in words and exceptional reading skills along with difficulty with reading comprehension. Hyperlexic individuals frequently have social problems and other developmental delays. Gilman carefully discusses the unusual issues her son has, such as sensory sensitivities, and a tendency toward OCD and rigid behavior, without ever putting him into a labelled box.

What makes Gilman’s book so fascinating is how she uses the abstract and ambiguous natures of poetry to further her own understanding of her son’s development. Because Gilman was a literature professor, she has a skill in presenting the poetry in a way that enhances the understanding of both the developmental issues and the poetry. Since I was trained as an engineer, with MIT’s minimal literature requirements, I’ve rarely had that experience.

Like all the mother/authors I’ve read, Gilman has great dreams for her son, and fights to help him attain them. The difference in this book is the eloquence of how she expresses these dreams for Benj:

“That he be seen as whole against the sky. That he not suffer beyond his and my capacity to bear it. That he be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of 'his own private nook' and come out of that nook for joyful engagement with others. That he always hold on to his visionary gleam, his bright radiance.”

This book has a bright radiance all its own.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Autistic Artists: Chris Murray

Perhaps because the visual world is so intense for many autistic individuals, there are a number of excellent autistic artists. I recently blogged about artist Ping Lian Yeak, a young autistic man who displays his artwork in shows around the world. Chris Murray, the subject of the documentary Dad’s In Heaven with Nixon is another successful autistic artist. Murray, who lives independently and has worked in several jobs for a number of years, could easily support himself through his art, but has chosen to keep it as a side project.

I recently purchased Murray’s poster “Red Brick” for my office. While every artist is different, I think this work really highlights some of the strengths of autism. While the work is a cohesive whole, the details are more compelling than is often the case in more neurotypical work. Murray painstakingly represents each window, brick and taxicab. But the details don’t overwhelm, because the rhythm of the piece is so apparent. The detail I enjoy the most is that the artist isn’t constrained by taking just one point of view. Each aspect is represented from its most interesting viewpoint. The building is seen head on, the taxis driving away have a regular top down spacing, and those passing in front of the building are seen from the side. Somehow, although this is different than what we’re used to seeing in a representational painting, it works, maybe because it captures the details much the way we would notice them individually. The tension between whimsy and structure makes this a much more sophistocated work than it might appear to be at first.

You can learn about the excellent documentary, and see some examples of Chris Murray’s work on the Dad's In Heaven with Nixon Movie website.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Colleges for Asperger’s and Autistic Students

More than ever, young people on the autism spectrum are going to college. Thanks to highly effective early interventions, ongoing educational assistance and, of course, the crucial support of parents, students with Asperger’s and autism are succeeding academically, graduating from high school, and looking for more education. This is great news, because those on the spectrum are frequently underemployed, and education can go a long way in ensuring that autistic adults can find satisfying and appropriate jobs.

But, it’s important to make sure these students have the support they need to take advantage of their college experiences. Most students on the spectrum, whether in special education programs or standard classrooms, have had the advantage of special services at their elementary and high schools. And all kids on the spectrum have benefited from the ongoing help of their parents. Too often, that assistance gets dropped all at once as students attempt a standard college program, without the help of special services or their parents. College presents intense challenges, not just academically, but also for executive function, life skills and social skills.

For many college students, a few years at community college or junior college can be the best fit for right out of high school. These programs can allow the students to stay at home for a few years and focus extra attention on developing their independence, executive functions and social skills. Arguably, these abilities are probably more important for long term employability than academic excellence.

A growing number of universities offer programs specifically for autistic students. In a blog post a few years ago I mentioned Inside’s lists of Very Friendly Schools for Students with Asperger’s, and Friendly Schools for Students with Asperger’s. Recently, a reader brought my attention to 10 Impressive Special College Programs for Students With Autism. Both of these sites can provide some options for appropriate and supportive four year programs.