It’s easy to forget that until the late 1980s the notion of an autistic person being able to write a compelling autobiography was dismissed by the psychiatric establishment as highly unlikely. Though the term ‘autism’ was originally derived from the Greek word for self, autos, people with ‘self-ism’ — who were routinely described by non-autistic experts as being ‘trapped in their own world’ — were ironically thought to be incapable of the kind of introspection and self-reflection necessary to produce trustworthy documentation of their own experience.
When the industrial designer Temple Grandin published Emergence: Labeled Autistic in 1986, it was billed as ‘the first book written by a recovered autistic individual’ — the assumption being that a person self-aware enough to tell their own story must no longer be autistic. (Today, Emergence is still described by Google Books as ‘the first-hand account of a courageous autistic woman who beat the odds and cured herself’.) Even as sympathetic a reader as the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, whose sensitive profile of Grandin in the New Yorker became the centrepiece of his bestseller An Anthropologist on Mars, initially suspected that Grandin’s non-autistic co-author Margaret Scariano must have done the lion’s share of organising the material into a book. But then Sacks read a pile of scientific papers that Grandin had published on her own and found her authorial voice consistent, unmistakable, inimitable and full of insight. Clearly, she had not ‘cured herself’ of autism. Instead, she had turned her distinctively autistic experience of the world into a compelling narrative.
So much has changed in a dizzyingly short time. Rather than being regarded as an exceptionally rare and narrowly defined form of childhood psychosis, as it was for most of the 20th century, autism has been recognised as a broad spectrum of common cognitive disabilities that includes everyone from chatty blockchain entrepreneurs who binge-watch Doctor Who to individuals who require assistive technology such as text-to-speech software to communicate their basic needs.
Autistic autobiographies have become their own thriving literary sub-genre, spanning a range from self-published accounts to international bestsellers, including John Elder Robison’s hilarious Look Me in the Eye (which tells not only of his social faux pas, but his adventures on the road, building fire-spitting guitars for the rock band Kiss), Donna Williams’s Nobody Nowhere, and Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, which is being made into a feature-length documentary. Last year, the autistic academician Melanie Yergeau published a scathingly witty and subversive overview of this burgeoning field called Authoring Autism. What was once thought unlikely is currently an expanding sphere of scholarship that is influencing the direction of scientific research, as the lived experience of autistic authors emerges from the shadows of decades of stereotypes and stigma.
Now Tom Cutler, the Welsh-born author of droll, archly parodic self-help guides such as A Gentleman’s Bedside Book and 211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do (which became an unexpected No.1 hit on Amazon UK in 2006) has told his own life story with a bracing lack of sentimentality in Keep Clear: My Adventures with Asperger’s. Instead of being the heart-tugging saga of a writer who ‘overcame’ his disability to become a bestselling author, it’s the inverse: the tale of a prodigiously talented author who was finally able to make sense of decades of social mishaps, miscalculations and misunderstandings by embracing a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 55, after his life had become a shambles that no amount of sucking-it-up or talking-it-out with therapists (online or off) seemed to repair.
To Cutler, being ‘labelled autistic’ came as a profound relief, finally enabling him to find his place in a world that had always overlooked him, actively excluded him or regarded his all-consuming interests (which include road signs, licence plates, typographical design and sound effects in films) with dour suspicion. He describes the day of his assessment — by the noted autistic author and diagnostician Sarah Hendrickx — as the happiest day of his life.
In this regard, Cutler’s book is not unusual; an autistic woman named Rina Kor once told me at a book signing that getting a diagnosis in midlife was ‘like finding the Rosetta Stone to myself’. But what distinguishes Keep Clear from the mass of autistic memoirs is the sheer scintillating virtuosity of the writing, the keenness of the author’s observations of the little evasions and hypocrisies that non-autistics rely upon to convince themselves that things are running smoothly, the endearing crankiness of his character, and the emotional impact of the narrative, which builds almost imperceptibly until it culminates in a revelation about the nature of happiness that I won’t spoil here, but which will speak to autistic and non-autistic readers alike.
One of the intellectual ravishments of Keep Clear is encountering prickly old-fashioned words (such as groynes, rebarbative and septarium) that have slipped out of common usage in the age of clickbait and dumbed-down prose, as if Cutler’s atypical brain is a kind of wildlife preserve for endangered vocabulary. In one of the first historical descriptions of autism, back in the 1920s, the Soviet psychiatrist Grunya Sukhareva described a group of socially awkward teenagers who were irrepressibly anti-authoritarian and irresistibly drawn to all manner of puns and wordplay.
In Cutler, these classic Aspergian traits manifest themselves as a haughty disregard for pomposity and pretence, and a torrent of dazzlingly vivid and original images, delivered with a dash of snark that acts like bitters in a well-crafted cocktail. He describes an empty schoolroom as ‘a place of varnish and echoes’, compares bores at parties who mistake him for a kindred spirit to ‘garlic skin on a wet finger’, and recalls a third-rate student hotel room in Paris that ‘looked as though someone had come in during the night and stirred the contents with a giant spoon’.
Only occasionally does Cutler’s passion for outré description get a bit overwrought, as when he writes of horse chestnuts tumbling out of the trees, ‘their splitting pulp exposing conkers like gorillas’ eyes’. The only longueurs in the book occur in the second chapter, when Cutler attempts to sum up the state of autism assessment tests and clinical research, as if he felt that such a section was practically required in any treatment of the subject.
What makes this book extraordinary, however, is not the autism of its author but Cutler’s ability to articulate subtle shades of feeling in prose that feels both rigorously precise and uproariously funny. By its unexpectedly heart-wrenching conclusion, Keep Clear has delivered the reader into a world transformed by being glimpsed through the eyes of another — the reward of all superb writing.