Curious incident of the piano man

If he is autistic, as seems likely, he will join a dangerously neglected group of people

ON THE WALLS of the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh hangs a small line-drawing of the building’s domed ceiling. Immaculately executed, it shows every detail of the elaborate plasterwork, with its tiny star-shaped windows and its 18th-century decoration. It was drawn, from memory, by Stephen Wiltshire, a 19-year-old autistic man. Intensely musical, as well as artistically brilliant, Stephen finished the work at speed. It took him about an hour.
I have no idea whether the nameless young man with the brilliant piano technique, whose condition so baffles doctors at Little Brook Hospital in Kent, is also autistic. But when I saw that his only act of communication thus far has been to make a detailed drawing of a grand piano, and to play classical music from memory for hour after hour, I thought of Stephen. Whatever the facts about this person’s past, mental brilliance and social isolation are hallmarks of a condition that is one of the most prevalent and least understood disabilities among young people today.

One recent estimate suggests that as many as 1 in 200 people in Britain have symptoms of autism. It is a staggering figure, but one that is supported by Dr Christopher Gillberg, a distinguished Swedish child psychiatrist, who has spent nearly 30 years studying the condition. He believes that almost half of the children who have mental difficulties diagnosed — who may be among the most disruptive or, alternatively, remote pupils in class — suffer from autism, or its close relative, Asperger’s syndrome, or its more troublesome counterpart, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They live in a world whose rules are written differently from those that govern most peoples’ lives. Anyone who has read Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will understand that strange combination of private obsession and social ineptness that are typical features of autistic children. However gifted they may be, they find human relationships — the routine codes of behaviour which most of us take for granted — almost impossible to understand, let alone to adopt. This strange, disconnected condition is almost certainly genetic, medically untreatable (apart from the controversial drug Ritalin, prescribed for ADHD) and requires long hours of patience and individual attention if it is to be dealt with properly.

These are not qualities widely available to the average child within Britain’s education system. The big, sprawling classes of the modern comprehensive school are no friends to the victim of autism. Since current policy favours “integrated” education for children with learning difficulties — the argument being that they will benefit from working alongside “normal” pupils — the extra ingredients of time and support that they so desperately need are, inevitably, limited. Left either to drown quietly at the back of the class, or singled out because of their disruptive behaviour, they are seen as problems for teachers rather than patients in need of care. Very often — as Gillberg confirms — they become victims of bullying or isolation and may, later on, develop more severe psychotic conditions.

So begins a vicious circle. The untreated autistic child becomes the difficult adolescent, who develops into the mentally disordered young man (most sufferers are male) who ends up relying on incapacity benefit, the very category which the Government is pledged to reduce in its new legislation, announced in the Queen’s Speech yesterday.

If this were to happen, the State would be failing these people twice over — by failing to offer them the early support they need, then by withdrawing the benefits that allow them to survive later on. Yet, though there is no known cure for autism, there are intelligent and civilised ways of dealing with it that can turn a potentially wasted life into one of rich potential.

Autistic children’s gifts are governed by special areas of expertise, which range from the pedantic to the brilliant, like the little girl who can recite the entire list of Deltic diesel trains leaving King’s Cross station, and the precise times of their departure, but who finds the ordinary niceties of polite conversation impossible to understand. Or the teenager I once met who could reel off the chronology of the Russian Revolution with unerring accuracy, but was quite unable to explain its significance.

Their brilliance can sometimes defy the odds, like that of David Tammet, the subject of a Five programme next Monday, whose mind has a greater capacity than that of an ordinary calculator, who can read and memorise barcodes and football attendance figures, and learn Icelandic or Romanian in a week, but who is disturbed by crowds, cannot drive and has to avoid beaches or he finds himself counting all the pebbles. He lives an otherwise normal life, but only within the parameters that he has learnt to understand and to cope with. These are the autistic “savants”, who can make extraordinary contributions to society.

For most autistic people, however, life is a never-ending struggle to come to terms with the baffling conventions of normal behaviour. They long to be part of the human race, but find it hard to bridge the gap between their world and ours. And because society tends neither to have the time nor the patience needed, they find themselves too often discarded on its outer fringes. They deserve better than this. I hope the man with no name finds one soon, and that he continues to be given his music, a good piano, and a place where he can safely play it. It is not a great deal to ask.

Autor: Magnus Linklater
Medio: Times Online
Fecha: Miércoles 18 de mayo de 2005
Notas: Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.
ID: 1563 Editar

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