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Self-isolated? Try autism

Coronavirus and autism have surprising similarities

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

We live in surprising times. Here in New Zealand, as everywhere else, it’s National Corona Month. The government has put virtually everybody on home detention for at least four weeks. But while most of us are more or less in the same locked boat, I believe my household has at least one unusual advantage.

It’s my good fortune, if you can call it that, to be booked to spend this period of enforced isolation with a 20-year-old who genuinely couldn’t care less about the pandemic and its ramifications.

Although he has an abundant interest in the physical world, that attention doesn’t extend to the daily virological dispatches that have so hypnotised the rest of us. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s frequent updates on the evolving crisis are of no particular moment to him. The latest figures on active cases, recoveries and deaths he passes by like an idle wind he regards not. Even the chance that he may pick up the superbug genuinely doesn’t faze him.

Meet the decidedly upbeat Eliot Cohen. But the chirpy optimism my son brings to the current crisis has nothing to do with psychology. It is neurological: Eliot also happens to be classically autistic.

One must be delicate with one’s terminology when describing this condition, because it’s not so much something people suffer from as a mysterious fact of life. It is also, usually, a little more challenging to deal with for those in close proximity than the individual himself (and statistically it is much more likely to be a ‘he’).

Autism was first described in 1934 by the cigar-chomping child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who borrowed the word — derived from the Greek autos, meaning ‘self’ — from the Swiss researcher Eugen Bleuler, who in turn coined it in another context some three decades earlier. Kanner used it to identify what he had observed over a five-year period in Baltimore studying eleven children afflicted with an ‘extreme aloneness from the beginning of life’.

What these kids shared, the Austrian-American physician saw, was an ironclad detachment from aspects of the social world, along with profound difficulties with communication and imaginative play. While Kanner would later refine aspects of his definition, the name — and its enigma — has stuck.

These days we tend to hear more about autism in respect of those at the less socially-impaired end of the spectrum. Lifestyle media stories about the eccentric but brilliant university don or a socially awkward technology nerd have in recent years almost become a journalistic cliché. For a smaller percentage of autists, however, the condition is laced with a degree of cognitive impairment. Which can be devastating, at least for those who are required to pick up the pieces.

My cheerful son, who doesn’t speak and needs to be assisted with most everyday activities, falls squarely in this category. His parents, like many parents of kids with the condition, usually play support. Seldom more so, one might assume, than in the circumstance of a national shutdown in which the usual legs of support (respite care, outside professionals, an open doctor’s surgery) have pretty much vanished.

On a personal level, though, what may be almost as jolting is the way in which the situation has turned our respective roles a little on their heads.

Eliot leads the way in keeping domestic attention focused on what’s immediate and achievable and letting the cards we cannot control fall where they may. That also happens to be precisely the approach mental health experts are suggesting for everyone; far from being a neurological impairment the autistic style figures as sound psychological hygiene.

No surprises there. Many of the concepts the rest of us have spent recent weeks scrambling to get our heads around are decidedly old hat to Eliot. Social distancing? He’s been doing that since day one. Isolation? Comes with the autistic turf. Living only for the moment? It has ever been thus.

Nor do the inversions stop there. We know from studies of identical twins, and the observable fact that the condition tends to cluster in families, that autism has a genetic basis. It is determined at conception. This in turn raises a sticky ontological question. If Eliot was Eliot from the start, does that somehow mark him as enjoying less value than the rest of us?

In happier times, dispensing with pieties and the soothing ointment of politically sensitive speech, some might reach for a somewhat uncharitable answer. But today the coronavirus surge taunts us with its own ontological questions, toppling cherished assumptions and social perceptions as it goes.

We’re living in a hall of mirrors — here a medical and economic crisis, there a crisis of hysteria and fear.

In the space of a few weeks, those who stack supermarket shelves have acquired considerably more social cachet than the entire collected speeches of celebrities inveighing against the capitalist menace at their now suddenly inconsequential award ceremonies. Rubbish collectors have emerged as cultural heroes. Nurses are receiving applause without end. Given a choice between watching a rock star being interviewed about his latest recording and a wispy epidemiologist walking viewers through arcane charts and figures, even the cool kids right now would probably take the egghead.

It also seems to go without saying that anyone with a genuinely sunny disposition is going to be a much better company during the long nights of lockdowns, wine and rediscovering a few old truths.

I am not a Christian, but one of my all-time favourite books is C. S. Lewis’s thundering apologia, Mere Christianity. In his celebrated work, Lewis meditates on the fatal flaw of assessing others by superficial measures. This he does by envisioning how people fare at the Final Judgment, the great and terrible moment when everybody is locked down and forced to see things as they really are.

Lewis pictures everybody stripped of all artifice and half-baked notions of what does and doesn’t make for a life well lived. ‘All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us,’ he writes, and ‘all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was.’

And then comes Lewis’s killer line:

‘There will be surprises.’

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