Ireland through the eyes of a brilliant teenage naturalist

Dara McAnulty is a teenage naturalist from Northern Ireland. He has autism; so do his brother, sister and mother — his father, a conservation scientist, is the odd one out. This book records a year in the life of a gifted boy in an unusual family. Minutely detailed observations of birds, insects, trees and weather are woven into an ecstatic description of the unrolling of the seasons. It is also an impassioned and original plea for protection for ‘our delicate and changing biosphere’. The diary is valuable in several ways. The writing of it is necessary to Dara himself, his means of processing his experiences. When he’s outside, absorbed in

Lockdown can be overwhelming for those with autism

National Autism Month in April coincided with our strictest phase of lockdown. My son, 36, who has Asperger’s, has consequently been unable to stick to all his routines — one being the Sunday car boot sale on Brighton Racecourse — and I was worried about how he’d cope. He suggested we watch classic EastEnders together from our separate homes and text each other about the personalities and plot. It worked. The episodes from the early 1990s are fast-moving and the characters very real. One scriptwriter then, Susan Boyd, born in Glasgow, hung out with the Jamaican community in Ladbroke Grove in the 1970s. She died at only 55. I looked

For Tom Cutler, being diagnosed autistic was the happiest day of his life

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

Great and small

‘I’m not going to your place, it looks like a crack den.’ It’s not exactly a vote of confidence when your mother describes your home that way. Admittedly, the bedsit I have lived in for ten years is tiny. There is no central heating. The white blinds have faded to yellow. It’s not much good for house parties: I could fit four people, five if I sat between the sink and the microwave. However, I would like to defend living in bedsits. Whenever I hear people complaining about housing in London, I wonder whether they have considered a bedsit. I’m autistic and work as a part-time carer, but even on

Letters | 24 January 2019

Autistic freedom Sir: Jonathan Mitchell, an autistic writer, argues that autism is an affliction and that a cure should be found (‘The dangers of “neurodiversity”’, 19 January). When my son was diagnosed I would have agreed with him, but I disagree strongly now. My son’s autism comes with real challenges, but I value the ways it’s helped him become a thoroughly decent person: he doesn’t lie, it wouldn’t occur to him to be nasty and he’s totally logical. Surely, the world needs more people like him, not fewer. As Mr Mitchell says, the autism spectrum is huge, encompassing people who can’t communicate, who are locked in a sensory hell and

The danger of ‘neurodiversity’

I’m an American man affected by the disability autism. As a child, I went to special education schools for eight years and I do a self-stimulatory behaviour during the day which prevents me from getting much done. I’ve never had a girlfriend. I have bad motor coordination problems which greatly impair my ability to handwrite and do other tasks. I also have social skills problems, and I sometimes say and do inappropriate things that cause offence. I was fired from more than 20 jobs for making excessive mistakes and for behavioural problems before I retired at the age of 51. Others with autism spectrum disorder have it worse than I

Pay back time

‘We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favoured to win.’ So says Seema, the 29-year-old wife of hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen in Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel, Lake Success. The relationship between fiction and the world of high finance has a complicated history. Having largely ignored Wall Street — Tom Wolfe, Bret Easton Ellis and F. Scott Fitzgerald aside — novelists found in the crash of 2008 a galvanic moment. Suddenly bankers were everywhere, from Sebastian Faulks to John Lanchester to Anne Enright, while younger writers such as Adam Haslett and Zia Haider Rahman wrote memorable novels that made

Mind over matter | 23 August 2018

The return of Sue MacGregor’s long-running Radio 4 series The Reunion (produced by Eve Streeter) is a welcome reminder of just how good radio can be at taking us inside an experience while at the same time opening our minds to things we should know about. First there is MacGregor herself, such a vibrant, resonant voice, never too fast or too slow. Then there is her understanding of how to communicate. Each week she gives a short resumé of how and why the people she has gathered in the studio were first brought together, summarising complicated events in such a concise but clear way, giving all we need to know

For goodness’ sake

Most new Netflix series are greeted not merely with acclaim, but with a level of gratitude that the returning Christ might find a little excessive two minutes before Armageddon. In this respect, then, Atypical is proving rather atypical. The reason for the mixed reception is that its 18-year-old protagonist, Sam, has autism — and, as we know, in these righteous times fictional characters are judged not on whether they’re convincing individual creations but whether they’re virtuous enough as representatives of an entire group. Happily for the bloggers, by that all-important criterion, Atypical was bound to fall a little short. (One especially righteous soul has duly pointed out that Sam is

Some insights into autism

The Reason I Jump, by the autistic Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida, was a surprise bestseller in 2013. Rendered as a series of answers to the questions that puzzled those around him, Higashida’s lyrical explanations of his compulsions and unusual behaviours were revelatory and uplifting. Readers felt they understood the condition better as a result. Higashida was described as non-verbal; he composed his earlier book by touching letters on a card with an alphabet grid or tracing them on the palm of a hand. The spelled-out words were transcribed and the text edited by his mother. This sequel, Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight, has been edited together from Higashida’s

Self’s obsessions

This 600-page, single-paragraph novel shuttles back and forth across time between the perspectives of an elderly and confused psychiatrist, a tank commander in Iraq, an autistic computer genius, the autistic computer genius’s mother and a closeted MI6 spy who thinks his cock is talking to him — which, for this stage in Will Self’s writing career, is pretty much situation normal. Readers of Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014) will know the score already, as this is the third instalment in a loose trilogy following Self’s recurring psychotherapist Zack Busner as well as several generations of a family called Death (De’Ath for the posh ones). They will also know that these

Diary – 16 March 2017

In the NHS clinic where I work, adults who suspect they may have Asperger syndrome wait almost a year for a diagnosis. The clinic takes referrals from all over Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (a population of 860,000), but we have to see all of them in the hours of a single full-time doctor. And the clinic is not given funds to run a follow-up support service once someone has been diagnosed. These individuals struggle to socialise, are neurologically different, and are overlooked because their disability is invisible. Many have experienced bullying in childhood, underemployment in adulthood and exploitation because of their social naivety. Many are made to feel inferior despite their

The Spectator’s notes | 7 April 2016

However wicked tax evasion is and however distasteful some tax avoidance may be, people should imagine a world without tax havens and see if they really want it. The prime reason that tax havens exist is that taxes in most countries are too high. If they did not exist, the competitive element would be reduced, and taxes would go up even more. The EU constantly complains about ‘unfair tax competition’, by which it really means just tax competition itself. Tax avoidance is what most of us try to do (see next item). Resentment about it is largely because the rich find it easier to achieve than the rest of us.

Good cop, bad cop | 23 March 2016

Which is better, British TV drama or American? A couple of years ago, merely asking the question would have had the hipsters chortling into their obscure US box sets — and even now a strange cultural cringe seems to persist. Nonetheless, I’d suggest, British television drama these days really is in the midst of an era that will have commentators in 20 years’ time routinely (if a bit unimaginatively) reaching for the adjective ‘golden’. Already in 2016 we’ve had War and Peace, Murder, The Night Manager and Happy Valley — and that’s before the hugely welcome return of Line of Duty (BBC2), Jed Mercurio’s riveting thriller about a police anti-corruption

Hero or collaborator?

Steve Silberman’s stunning new book looks across history, back to Henry Cavendish, the 18th-century natural scientist who discovered hydrogen, Hugo Gernsbach, the early-20th-century inventor and pioneer of amateur ‘wireless’ radio, and countless other technically brilliant but socially awkward, eccentric non-conformists, members of the ‘neurotribe’ we now call the autism spectrum. He argues passionately for the ‘neurodiversity’ model rather than the medical disease model, for society to stop trying to ‘cure’ or ‘normalise’ those with autism, but to recognise them as neurologically differently wired, to accept difference, and support their disabilities when these surface in certain environments. His book could serve as a manifesto about extending dignity and human rights for

Gothic mysteries

This is a muddle of novel (originally published last year by Tartarus Press in a limited edition), though there are plenty of indications that the author will go on to do great things. I doubt if he had quite decided what he was writing — a Stephen King horror story, a book about the loss of intense Catholic faith, a serious novel about families, a Gothic mystery.… It has elements of all these, but has not settled down to be any. It is written as though at a distance from the characters, by someone observing them, perhaps ironically, perhaps fondly, never closely. Only the narrator, and his younger brother, Andrew

Salvation through music

Ours is the era of everybody’s autobiography. Bookshops groan with misery-lit memoirs — Never Let Me Go, Dysfunction Without Tears — which dilate on anorexia, alcoholism, cruel bereavement. When is a life worth telling? B.S. Johnson, the London-born novelist (and tireless chronicler of himself), put the most revealing sexual details into his autobiographical novels of the 1960s. They might have amounted to mere solipsistic spouting, were the writing not so good. James Rhodes, a 40-year-old classical musician, was repeatedly raped at his London prep school in the early 1980s. In his memoir, Instrumental, Rhodes tells how he found salvation in music and became one of our leading concert pianists. Written

I used to have Asperger’s. Now I’m autistic, according to ‘experts’. I don’t believe it

Autism is being diagnosed all over the place right now. There’s been an explosion in the number of cases, we’re told. This could be something to do with better diagnostic tools, and it’s hard to argue that more media coverage of mental health isn’t a good thing. But the scientific community still know little about this mysterious condition and how and why it affects certain people. And that’s a problem for me, because – according to the textbooks – I have an ‘autism spectrum disorder’. I’m not happy with that label, so I feel perfectly entitled to ask: has the definition of autism become too loose, to the point where it has so many symptoms that you

We don’t think of highly gifted people as mentally disabled. Perhaps we should

I’m intrigued by this recent study suggesting that intellectual gifts and learning disabilities, far from lying on opposite ends of a spectrum of intelligence, sometimes go hand in hand. Intrigued, but not surprised. Very bright people can be odd – we all know that. The eccentric genius is one of the clichés of history and fiction. But it’s rooted in observation. One thinks of wild-haired Oxford dons at high table, singing music hall songs in iambic pentameter while spraying their neighbours in Brown Windsor soup. Or the story of a distinguished academic banned from dining in his own college after – so legend has it – reinforcing his argument about the intellectual failings of women

The limits of ‘superfood’ – debunking broccoli

Over in my day job, I recently wrote a piece about ‘superfoods’ and the myths that a particular kind of food can protect you from illnesses. The only food advice for which there is consistent evidence is that you should eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables; all this stuff about how you should eat pomegranate to make your liver healthy, or whatever, is complete nonsense. One of the items that keeps cropping up was broccoli. It contains a chemical called sulforaphane, which supposedly helps with diabetes, lung disease and breast cancer. Naturally, the evidence for all this is lacking: the tests were all carried out with