Reviewed by Erika O'Brien
Connecting with a child, parent, relative, friend or co-worker with High Functioning Autism may, at times, leave you puzzled (even frustrated!), if you are not on the Spectrum yourself. Sadly, people can be discouraged by such interactions if the person on the Spectrum is slower to respond or simply gives a blank look. Yet, to those with 'eyes to see', there lies in such relationships a precious opportunity (for both people) to take a fascinating look at the world through a different lens.
Many ‘neurotypicals’ (those not on the Autistic Spectrum) actually long for this real insight into the inner workings of the autistic minds of those they care about. That longing has lead me, as the mother of a child with High Functioning Autism, on a seemingly endless quest for knowledge and greater understanding as I raise my child.
Now, this eloquently written autobiography, by Rachael Lee Harris, has taken me to a new and much better place, giving me a window into my son’s inner life from someone who has grown up processing the world in a similar way. In Rachael’s words, her book is : “a window into autism - not as it is imagined, but as it is lived.”
The author’s passion for language and literature - her fascination with words - shines in this book, and is a great asset as she gives us rare glimpses into the autistic mind. Few have been able to articulate the experience of High Functioning Autism so well before. Describing her life as a child, she says:
“...lost in a labyrinth of chaotic and fanciful whims, my mental processes crisscrossed in an endless round of random and associational thoughts that wound in on themselves, rarely making contact with the light of society.” (p33)
Such an inner world is not always evident in the blank expressions of those on the spectrum, and nor is their extreme sensitivity to their environment, or their brain’s insatiable hunger for detail. Rachael’s excellent long-term memory has enabled her to describe herself as a four year old, walking aimlessly down the street...aimless, yet sensing - sensing “the wet grass under her feet, the crisp air filling her lungs, and the play of dappled light through the trees” (p2). She was entranced by things such as moving water, as was my own son, a lovely thing in fact, as it stopped me hurrying on rainy days when he always wanted to float leaves down the rushing water in the gutters. Rachael also remembers watching ant colonies for hours at a time, fascinated by their patterns and movements. Tiny creatures often draw the attention of children on the Spectrum, and helpfully force parents to “stop and smell the roses with them”.
In speaking of this strong connection with the natural world of matter, as opposed to her 'trickier' connections with people, Rachael describes herself as “Wired for Wonder” (p27). Coupled with this gift, however, came difficulties in life. Hypersensitivity to the environment meant night terrors, shadows and creaks caused her great anxiety. Daytime brought its own challenges, with primary school being “a kaleidoscope of noise and confusion”. Rachael’s description of the school playground is invaluable for teachers and parents alike:
“For children on the spectrum, the playground is a noisy, chaotic, nerve-jangling environment, with ever-changing social rules that are totally lost on them.” (p13)
Rachael also recounts being quickly labeled as a ‘social-misfit’ at high school, and being unfairly treated and misunderstood by some teachers. Through her teenage years and onward, she found her rigid thinking to be an “affliction” which made her quick to find fault with others, but also vulnerable to being crushed and defeated if others found fault in her. For sure, many neurotypicals deal with similar experiences but, for those on the Spectrum, the experience is of intense emotions with no middle-range, forcing them to ride an emotional roller coaster almost constantly.
These social struggles continued into Rachael’s adulthood, when she found that many others with whom she was trying to connect did not share her delight in detail and her “tendency to warm herself with a glowing fire of facts” (p164). Her description of the “warmth” gained through factual information has given me a new appreciation for ASD children who gain such satisfaction and calmness through reading out endless random facts found through Google.
I have also been reminded through the book about the impact of living with a brain that fails to filter out a different form of information: unnecessary sensory information from the environment. It can be extremely tiring. Even things such as the flickering of a lightbulb can cause great frustration and be very wearing. No wonder my son has trouble falling asleep at night with all the household noises around him!
With all these challenges, it is so easy to see how vital it is for us to respect the needs that those with ASD have to recharge, to give their minds the space they need to rest and process in peace. I believe schools need to be encouraged to provide a place for such children to “chill”.
But, perhaps the greatest lesson to be learnt from this book for a neurotypical is, with those on the Spectrum, “Don’t assume blank expressions mean their hearts follow suit.” On the contrary, like Rachael, their hearts may be so empathetic that their tendency is to become totally overwhelmed in the face of the afflictions present in the human experience. I have similarly found my own son full of empathy for his siblings, and he has expressed his bewilderment about such things as 'why people would ever want to make sad movies'. While those on the Spectrum sometimes find it hard to imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes, it does not mean they are void of empathy, or other emotions which don’t happen to show up on their faces.
For these invaluable insights, I cannot recommend this book more highly. There is so much to be gained by stepping into Rachael’s inner world, and by journeying through her life, which later takes her to a monastery. Sharing her life with nuns, while living a life of ritual and routine, she seeks meaning beyond this world, and it is there that she begins to unlock the mysteries of her earlier life...and the rest is for you to read. Women or girls on the Spectrum will be particularly inspired.
For me, this autobiography was truly a breath of fresh air, and I am thankful for Rachel Harris, for so eloquently and generously baring her heart, sharing the “twists and turns” of her remarkable life so far. Her book is one of hope: Peace of mind and a solid self esteem are indeed possible for those on the Spectrum. All of us can, through Rachael's book, come to a much greater appreciation for the diversity of humankind, and welcome each other's unique perspectives, which are essential in the society in which we all live.
"My Autistic Awakening" by Rachael Lee Harris, Published April 9th 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers