Literary Autism: Shakespeare to Harry Potter

1971 Drama Major

Drama Major

“Until the age of five, I was classified as an autistic child.” This revelation shocked my public speaking class in 1971. I chose autism as the subject for an “informational speech” assignment because I was also taking a psychology course called Exceptional Children. I’d just read a chapter on the little-known condition and found it fascinating. But a good speech requires more than an interesting topic. It needs an ending that packs a punch. Because I was majoring in drama, not journalism, I didn’t think twice about using some creative license. My startling “revelation” was a boldfaced lie.

Two things I didn’t anticipate. An informational speech is followed by time for questions. My classmates had plenty, most concerning what I remembered from back then. I improvised like crazy about a soft-spoken woman, repetitive behavior, and other false memories. At the end, my professor commented on how remarkable it was that I was now an extroverted theater student. I hoped my intense blushing would not give me away as I returned to my seat. Apparently not. I got an A.

Blue Days

I’m always embarrassed to remember this incident, especially when April rolls around as Autism Awareness Month. I thought of it last week when the media reported that several books on autism were found in the home of Adam Lanza, the troubled young man who killed 20 first-graders, 6 teachers, his mother, and himself in Newtown, Connecticut last December. One of the books was Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, a memoir by Daniel Tammet.

“I was born on January 31, 1979 – a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing.” – Daniel Tammet

Born on a Blue DayI read Tammet’s inspiring book about five years ago. His ability to recite more than 22,000 digits of pi was less interesting to me than his vivid visual experience of numbers, a rare neurological condition known as synesthesia (which I’d given a character in the novel I’d yet to write.) I was also less intrigued by his talent for learning new languages in lightning speed than the fact that he was a gay Christian. His favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird (debate continues about whether the reclusive character Boo Radley might fall within the autism spectrum) but Tammet’s own story is simply amazing.

Today I wonder if Lanza had read Tammet’s book? Might it have brought him a degree of comfort in his social isolation? Could Adam have imagined Daniel as a friend? Or was it his mother who read the book to better understand her son? Or was the book a well-meant gift, left on a shelf and never read at all?

The Boy Who Loved Harry Potter

Ironically, considering my ill-advised university stunt, my sister is a one-on-one teacher’s aide for autistic children. She worked almost ten years with one boy – I’ll call him Maxwell – in elementary classes and the library; at afterschool and summer programs; and privately, once he began middle school. She even accompanied him on vacation with his family. Along with the usual repetitive behaviors, strict routines, verbal rituals, and occasional meltdowns, Maxwell had an obsession: Harry Potter.

Harry Potter

Expelliarmus!

Like children everywhere, Maxwell and Harry grew up together. Harry’s friends were Maxwell’s friends. Harry’s spells were Maxwell’s spells. Maxwell watched the films, first in theaters (refusing to leave until the final credits ended) and then over and over on video, until he had memorized every line of dialogue, every incantation, every action. He would do Harry Potter during class, on the playground, in the backseat of my sister’s car.

“Why Harry Potter?” I asked my sister in 2005 when I first met Maxwell (never Max!) “Why not?” she shrugged. It wasn’t a question young Maxwell could answer. Little did I know, an autistic teenager in Chicago might have enlightened us. James Williams, also a Harry Potter fan, was giving speeches to younger students on that very topic.

“Kids with autism often make things happen that they can’t explain. And if they don’t know they have autism, they don’t know why, no matter how hard they try, they are always getting in trouble… But then, how would you feel if you learned that it wasn’t your fault that you did those bad things. Instead, it was due to something beyond your control. Likewise, Harry was born a wizard, and it was beyond his control.”

Introducing Caliban

Last week I read about a fascinating project called Shakespeare and Autism. Drawing on the groundbreaking work of Royal Shakespeare Company actress Kelly Hunter, Ohio State University theatre students are helping autistic children break through difficulties in communication with playful exercises based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The short video below shows how repetitive rhythmic exercises grow into a scene in which Miranda meets Caliban (a character not unlike Boo Radley.)

I like to think if I were a drama major today, I’d be participating in such an exciting program. I certainly wouldn’t be making a speech claiming to have been classified on the autism spectrum. Forty years too late, an apology is in order. In the words of Shakespeare’s fairy savant: “If we shadows have offended…”

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