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Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

_____

The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.

space trilogyChristmas is the season of giving, and as a grandfather I can truly say it’s more wonderful to give than to receive. Those little smiles and squeals of joy are precious indeed.

Sadly, many children (and adults) will be forgotten this season. Worthwhile programs to reach out to the overlooked are sponsored by countless churches and communities. One of the most highly regarded, Angel Tree, provides gifts to the children of men and women who are incarcerated. These innocent children are already suffering due to the poor choices of adults; God alone knows how special the most modest Christmas gift might be to these little ones.

That is one end of the spectrum—those who have little. Equally sadly, many children (and adults) will overindulge this season. They will bury themselves under piles of soon-to-be-forgotten presents. Most will also bury themselves further under mounds of debt.

C.S. Lewis colorfully captured this quandary in “Xmas and Christmas.”

And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians [British] profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

Striving for balance in gift exchanging is important. For years now my father has said it’s unnecessary to give him Christmas or birthday gifts. It’s true. He’s able to purchase whatever he wants, and even the most thoughtful gifts are either redundant or undesired. He’s grateful, of course, but only out of courtesy. Last month, for his birthday, I took him up on his words. Instead of spending money on a gift, we made a special donation to the Gideons in his honor. He was delighted. I’ve known others who made the same request, that gifts intended for them be diverted to the benefit of others. It’s a grand custom.

After the homily on selflessness above, it may sound strange to hear that there is a Christmas gift I would like to suggest you consider giving to yourself. Actually, I’d advise a friend or loved one to purchase it for you, but since you probably haven’t encouraged them to subscribe to Mere Inkling (yet), I must satisfy myself with advising you to check out this special offer.

During the holiday season, HarperOne is running a special on C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (often referred to as the Space Trilogy). You can get them in various digital editions for only $1.99 each. Quite a bargain. And it leaves you plenty of resources to practice the truth that it’s better to give than receive.

Out of the Silent Planet, the first of these science fiction works, was the first Lewis book I read. A friend in a college fellowship group suggested it, and it introduced me to one of the greatest mentors a person could ever have! The books are available through this link: Cosmic Trilogy.

Oh, and if the Cosmic Trilogy is already in your library, or not your cup of tea, they are also discounting an illustrated edition of The Screwtape Letters.

The Trilogy is suitable for Christian and secular readers alike. It’s not overtly “religious.” In fact, in his C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide, Walter Hooper says many of the intial reviewers of the title were rather confused about its intended meaning. (This despite offering positive reviews.) One person who did comprehend its significance was an Anglican theologian named Eric Mascall. In a 1939 issue of Theology he wrote:

This is an altogether satisfactory story, in which fiction and theology are so skillfully blended that the non-Christian will not realize that he is being instructed until it is too late. It is excellent propaganda and first-rate entertainment.

I’m certain he meant “propaganda” in the most positive, pre-war sense. Actually, one does not need to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth to appreciate the series. If you’ve never read it before—and you don’t have a 100% aversion to the science fiction genre—the two dollar price means you’ll rarely have a better opportunity.