If empathy is walking in another person's shoes, how can we crawl inside the mind of someone with autism or intellectual disability?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time can take you there. In this best-selling novel turned Tony-award-winning Broadway play, author Mark Haddon's sense of humor hijacks us to a place where autism makes perfect sense.
The story's narrator, 15-year-old Christopher, on a self-appointed mission to solve the who-killed-the-neighbor's-dog murder mystery, brings us along on his ingenious, often hilarious adventure on the autism spectrum.
Christopher thinks differently. He knows all the countries in the world and their capitals, can recite every prime number up to 7,057, is fond of animals like Wellington the dead dog, and finds people hard to interpret, for two main reasons:
1. They talk without using words. If they raise one eyebrow, it can mean lots of things. It can mean "I want to do sex with you," and it also can mean "I think what you just said was very stupid."
2. They talk using metaphors: He was the apple of her eye. They had a skeleton in the cupboard. Metaphors, reasons Christopher, should be called lies, because people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And imagine an apple in someone's eye!
Keenly self-aware, Christopher can list his behavioral problems from A to Z:
A. Does not like to be touched
B. Screams and smashes things when angry or confused
C. Refuses to eat if different sorts of food are touching each other
You get the picture.
When a policeman finds Christopher cradling the dead dog, their conversation goes something like this:
"Would you like to tell me what's going on here, young man?"
"The dog is dead."
"What were you doing here?"
"Holding the dog."
"I like dogs."
But he hates the colors yellow and brown. Why? Custard, bananas, double yellow lines, yellow fever, yellow flowers with pollen, sweet corn because it comes out in your poo. And, dirt, gravy, poo, wood, Melissa Brown (a girl at school).
Christopher sees everything. Most people are lazy, he detects, because they never look at everything. They do something called glancing. If they are in the countryside, they might notice a field of grass, some cows, and some flowers.
But he can rewind his memory, a virtual visual library, to the countryside, where he notices 19 cows (15 black and white, four brown and white), a village in the distance with 31 visible houses, an old plastic bag and a squashed Coca Cola can in a hedge, three different types of grass, cows mostly facing uphill, plus 31 more things.
Welcome to sensory overload.
He soothes himself in numbers, however, by working out quadratic equations or doubling 2's in his head. He reached his all-time high of 2 to the 25th power, or 33,554,432, a satisfying feat not always possible when his head is not working properly, which sometimes happens.
Happens to everyone.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is coming to my town soon. Got my tickets to the show, and can't wait for a night out full of heart and hilarity.
Special needs families need a bit of both.