- Autistic Solitude and the Act of Reading
In 2004, Matei Calinescu wrote Portretul lui M, translated five years later as Matthew’s Enigma, a poignant meditation on his relationship with his autistic son who died of an epileptic seizure in 2003 at 26 years of age. This small volume is noteworthy for several reasons: as a testament to a father’s love for his son, as a public service acquainting the general public regarding the problems of raising a child with autism, as an inquiry into the nature of the disease, and, finally, as an investigation of the interrelation between autism and topic pertinent to the author’s profession, reading. With this memoir, the author also claims to draw a portrait of his son Matthew in order to understand him and others like him better. In the process, Calinescu seeks to understand himself in relationship to Matthew (2009, 197). Such a project points to the ethical concern of the volume—to understand oneself through an understanding of the other. Or, as Calinescu puts it, understanding is a form of reading and one reads to understand the self. One seeks to understand oneself through the other even when the other sometimes bears only an apparent, perhaps misleading and illusory resemblance to oneself (2009, 149).
Autism is generally viewed as a spectrum of cerebral and psychological disorders that affects three areas in particular—language, imagination, and socialization. The central disability in autism consists of the individual’s lack or impaired perception of a whole range of signals that are tacitly communicated by the body language, gestures, and facial expressions that enable social interaction and a proper understanding of linguistic communication (84–85). In the later half of the twentieth century, however, there were several hypotheses developed concerning autism’s etiology. First and foremost, perhaps, was Bruno Bettelheim’s outdated (and now largely discredited) study (Bettelheim 1967) in which autism was seen as a post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by an early childhood experience similar to that of an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, of which Bettelheim himself was a survivor. Bettelheiim’s death-camp theory of autism envisioned the autistic individual’s experience as continually living mentally in a space of extreme fear (Calinescu 2009, 40–41). What many saw and continue to see as the odious aspect of Bettelheim’s theory is how it symbolically constructed the parents of an autistic child as Nazi executioners at the level of the unconscious. Unfortunately, Bettelheim’s hypothesis held sway far too long, being [End Page 281] the authoritative work on the subject until the 1980s when an epidemic increase in autism diagnoses spawned a new generation of theorists.
Of this second generation, Calinescu was favorably influenced by the work of Niko and Elisabeth A. Tinbergen (1983), Lorna Wing (1976), and Uta Frith (1989). He calls attention to Clara Park’s memoir, The Siege (1982), in which the psychiatric institutes are compared to Kafka’s Castle (1926), where no information is given and people (parents, in this case) are told to proceed as they have been proceeding. Informed that their child is definitely not normal, the parents are given no definition of their child’s problem by the authorities. Park “diagnoses” a form of autism in the psychiatric specialists themselves, manifested in their detached coldness and arrogant complacency (qtd. in Calinescu 2009, 39–40). Calinescu also cites Simon Baron-Cohen (1995, 2003) who views autism as an illustration of “the extreme male brain” (Baron-Cohen 1995, 133–54), a theory foreshadowed by Hans Asperger in his ground breaking article of 1944 where he claims that the autistic personality is an extreme variant or caricature of male intelligence (qtd. in Calinescu 2009, 198). Asperger, the pioneering theorist after whom the high-functioning form of the disability is named, defined male intelligence as a capability for logical information, an inclination to abstraction, an attraction to numbers and purely mathematical relations, a lack of concern for context with all its concrete heterogeneous dimensions, a disinterest in expression and nuances that cannot be quantified, and a paradoxical mix of egotism and impersonality.
The most recent scholarship regarding autism ascribes to this mentalist perspective. It...