Unstrange, Not Even Wrong Minds
posted by Amy

It's my spring break from teaching this week, I don't have student papers to grade, and so I'm rereading Tom Stoppard's Arcadia when I come across these lines: "The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong."

"The future is disorder." That's an idea that can both chill and thrill me, depending on my mood. Or, as I put it to Henry, we can choose to approach life like optimistic Frog or like pessimistic Toad. Most of us, most days, are a combination of the two, which probably accounts for the popularity of Arnold Lobel's creations. Oddly, reading about autism, as I've been doing for the past several months, has left me feeling a bit like Stoppard's character Valentine, who uttered the lines quoted above: what a wonderful time to be alive.

Like an increasing number of parents, my parenting tasks include keeping up on the latest research on a child's diagnosis and preparing for the meetings with special education personnel at the school to write up a new 504 or IEP plan for the upcoming year. (And yes, March means fall 2007 is upcoming in my world. It's time to start the preparation for transitioning to a new teacher, and the first step is figuring out which teacher will have just the right amount of patience, combined with high expectations, for a particular child's particular needs.)

As the number of kids with diagnoses like ADD/ADHD, autism, and other labels increases, so does the anxiety level of parents, fueled by media accounts of an "autism epidemic" and similar uses of loaded language. Roy Richard Grinker's new book,Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism, is a wonderful antidote to the hysteria surrounding rising autism rates. It's also a fascinating look at how autism has been perceived through the years and across cultures.

Of the many other books I've read in the past few months about life on the autism spectrum, Paul Collins' memoir, Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, and Kamran Nazeer's Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism are two other standouts. British writer Charlotte Moore's George and Sam: Two Boys, One Family, and Autism, which just came out in the United States, is yet another.

All have in common with each other and Grinker the underlying premise that autism is not the end of the world and that in fact our world has always had people with autism in it. It may be the end of the world you thought you were living in, and the beginning of a world where you're far more aware that "the future is disorder," but Stoppard's lines don't tell us anything new: the future is always unpredictable and unknowable. We can deny it all we want, and like Toad, hide under the covers, or we can try for Frog's approach and be open to change.

This is not something, by the way, that I'm good at. I spend a good part of my day looking at life like Toad. Being Frog is not something that comes naturally to me. But as another of Stoppard's characters exclaims, "It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in." On a good day, that's how I feel: wanting to know more, about my particular child and myself and about how our brains work and how our culture defines normal, is what keeps me going. What a wonderful time to be alive, "when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong." Or, as the writers above might say, not even wrong, not even strange, just what they are and always have been.