It is my contention to share my knowledge of the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and the historical/cultural content in which it revealed regarding Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism and it’s major characters.
Themes throughout the novel: the value of truth/truth and perspective, human needs and relationships, the need for control/ stability/power, the nature of difference, communication, acceptance and the rites of passage…
Statistics: Autism is one of the most common developmental disabilities. Individuals are of all races and ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Current estimates suggest that approximately 400,000 individuals in theUnited Stateshave autism. Autism is three to four times more likely to affect boys than girls. Autism occurs in individuals of all levels of intelligence. Approximately 75 percent are of low intelligence while 10 percent may demonstrate high intelligence in specific areas such as math.
Autism is a psychological syndrome distinguished by an emotional shutdown of an individual. It is a fact that severely autistic people will shy away from human contact and social pleasure, often engrossing themselves instead in routines, repetitive tasks or private interests. We know that they are not mentally retarded, and can be extremely intelligent, talented and yes, different. As the cliché goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
In the autumn of 1998 the multifaceted emotions of his parents and the pain that they endured will always linger as a hidden secret. I speak of the protagonist, Christopher Francis and his parents Ed and Judy Boone from the book; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I would first like to declare that autism is as blind as a bat. It makes no difference if one is black, white, yellow or brown, rich or poor. There are no discriminatory factors within the disease. We all know someone who has been diagnosed with this heartbreaking syndrome, autism. But what does it look like? Have you seen the movie “Rain man” with Dustin Hoffman? Look around. Look at who is sitting next to you, or your friends, children or family. All of them could very well be the minority group of the faces of autism. Whether it is a daughter, son, brother or sister. That is why we are here. Have you ever experienced what those parents did in the novel? The tears, frustrations, anger and love as Ed and Judy Boone struggled with their own inner torments and joys which were only glimpses in the book? I’ll bet your answer would be yes. Could you relate to the evidence laid before you when someone you knew had almost a complete lack of understanding and mimetic ability making life very difficult for parents? Yes, again.
The characters within this text are shaped by living in a working class urban environment. The house in which Chistopher and his father lived in had a garden. Christopher described his hometown inSwindonas being small. Individuals within this town were capable of holding the power of their social status through their work, living in a society based on equality. As with Christopher’s parents, it was their independence and freedom of progression that became apparent when the reader discovered his father was a heating engineer who owned and operated a maintenance and boiler repair company and his mother was in search of herself and a career.
Whereas, the family values were depicted in a more negative light, “I used to think that Mother and Father might get divorced. That was because they hated each other. This was because of the stress of looking after someone who has Behavioral Problems like I have.” (Haddon, 2003, p.45). The structure of the family unit appeared fragile and weak resulting in not one but two marriage dissolutions.
His mother followed her dream to be independent and had to walk away from her family for her own sanity. She felt she was living in a falling tower and destruction was on her heels. She could not accept the trials and tribulations of being a mother of an autistic child and the loss of love within her husband. Motherhood was not a priority as she recognized her maternal instincts were insufficient knowing that she did not have the patience to cope with her son’s behavioral issues.
It was not only the mother who was barely coping, but also the long suffering father. Being a single parent for two years was extremely difficult for him. As hard as he tried he appeared to be insensitive to his sons needs. One can sense the torments and the power struggles of forbearance leading to his being short tempered, even inept when it came to his family yet, this character truly revealed his love and devotion towards his son. There was a dependence that was shared between the two of them. As a person with autism, his father took care of him in every meaning of the word and a small example of the reverse was when the reader was told his father never had to write down his bankcard pin number down, “…Father hadn’t written it down in a safe place, which is what you’re meant to do, but he had told me because he said I’d never forget it. And it was 3558.” (Haddon, 2003, p.135). Foucault made an interesting point, “…whose ideas have strongly influenced the development of new historian, power circulates in all directions, to and from all social levels, at all times.” (Tyson, 2006, p.284). Unfortunately, the end result was that Christopher became more of a loner than a family member. He was in need of a traditional family lifestyle and to feel protected in a secure place in which he could call his own in order for happiness to occur.
Here is the bottom line. You must know that your unconditional love can and does make a difference. We love these individuals and accept their innate disabilities and culture. Because what is culture but the essence of a society, of shared patterns, behaviors and interactions. Thompson (1997) commented, “that disability is another culture-bound, physically justified difference to consider along with race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexuality’.” (p.248). I believe if one thinks about it, are we not all born into a society and culture? Diversity is a part of life.
Within all cultures exists some type of language even in groups of individuals with life long developmental disabilities. It could be through gestures, drawings, physical actions and non verbal cues. Christopher utilized his communication skills through the world of art. As a child with autism drawing was means of relaying his message the only way he knew how. The wooden puzzle piece on page thirteen, the map of the street in which he lived on page thirty five, the constellation Orion on page one hundred twenty five, the Double Decker bus on page 211 and a more intricate wooden puzzle on page 217. These were clearly images that Christopher did not have the words to adequately express. This was one of many things he did because he had Asperger’s Syndrome. Tyson explained this as thick description. “Thick description, through close, detailed examination of a given cultural production – such as birthing practices, ritual ceromonies, games, penal codes, works of art, copyright laws, and the like – to discover the meaning that particular production had for the people in whose community it occured and to reveal the social conventions, cultural codes, and ways of seeing the world that gave that production those meanings.” (p.288). The main character was uncontaminated by societal logic and was limited by his own language. He appeared to be lacking in people skills, had difficulty in understanding tones of voices and difficulty with any type of gestures or body language. The National Autistic Society was quoted, “For people with autistic spectrum disorders, ‘body language’ can appear just as foreign as if people were speaking ancient Greek.” He is not the only one, for all children born with this disease share common characteristics, as a set pattern. There is what is called a triad of impairments and in layman’s terms means three social disorders are trapped within them. They have trouble with many aspects we all take for granted such as utilizing social/creative imagination, social interfacing and dealing with aspects of social communication. Let it be known that there are also differences within the population of individuals who have this disorder. No two are exactly alike.
How frustrating it must be not only for a child, but a parent when verbal communication is complicated or becomes unattainable. It has been said that most people inflicted with this disorder have difficulty effectively utilizing language. A daily occurrence, a constant struggle of understanding what a child wants or needs. Are they happy, sad, or maybe hungry? This was due to the fact that the child may experience emotions and feelings but, does not know and/or can’t express the meanings. Webster-Heard discussed her seven year old son’s ways of non-verbal communication, “My seven-year old, who is on the low end of the spectrum is nonverbal and is only able to show me what he wants by taking me to it or bringing a picture to me. The fact that he can’t communicate is the reason for most of his severe temper tantrums.”
With Christopher, his perception was only through conventional signs. Through piecing the puzzles together he was able to distinguish when his father shouted that he was angry or when there were tears it meant sadness. Consequently, all language subtleties whether they were ironies or metaphors were vague to him. He was disabled in his capability to efficiently interpret certain fundamentals he encountered, powerless to comprehend emotions in a normal fashion and found countless every day events to be intimidating and ordinary actions challenging. The coping mechanism he used was to surround him self with rules, rituals and math, “4 red cars in a row made it a good day, and 3 red cars in a row made it a quite good day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a super day and why 4 yellow cars made it a black day.” (Haddon, 2003, p.24).
It is unfortunate that the social order in place today has negative undertones of this brain disorder. As a young child, Christopher distinguished his thought process as a slicing machine in a bakery. This portrayed how his mind performed by certain regiments, at his own pace. His mind was configured as a machine or computer that transformed information. As with a computer, considering their intrinsic existence, the language of logic, and their ultimate determinate nature, it would seem that the machine of order and stability was the representation of the protagonist. At fifteen years old he was extremely intelligent, excelling in college level math and had held great deal of knowledge in technical and scientific facts.
An individual’s disability could be examined from many different lenses, whether it be the social construction, a medical standpoint, psychological or through a glimpse into the group dynamics as a minority. If one thinks about it, we all have our little quirks whether it is the type of food we eat, how we eat it and why. Or maybe it’s the colors in one’s wardrobe (is there a predominant theme?), or maybe…the list is endless. It is true that our “normal” world was significantly different from a person with development disabilities as in the main character. It can’t be easy for someone with a disability in our world which is consumed with competition, rivalry, restraint, and independence.
Point one: Who killed Wellington was an underlying theme in the novel? I would say the initiator of chaotic excess seemed to be the murderer ofWellington. Christopher loved animals, Toby his rat and dog’s because the canine portrayed characteristics he could relate to, “I also said that I cared for dogs because they were faithful and honest, and some dogs were cleverer and more interesting than some people.” (Haddon, 2003, p.6). This love of animals progressed into his search for order and stability. This was Christopher’s mind, literal, categorized and classified. Anything out of the “norm” jeopardized his happiness and feelings of safety. He observed the poodle’s death as representation of turmoil and disarray and therefore needed to be corrected in his mind due his high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. The realization that he could not be in control all the time and not everything had logical explanations was disturbing to him. The only way he knew how to communicate and respond was through anger or logic. He concluded that the passing over of this creature was an event to him in which he experienced and therefore chose a logical way of dealing with it, and so began the search for the truth. This was the beginning of his rite to passage. His handicap had become his strength.
Point two: Communication in general comes in a variety of forms. Ed Boone’s character was shown as someone who utilized cursing and foul language. For example, when discussing Judy’s letter’s, “Wrote to him? What the fuck use is writing to him? (Haddon, 2003, p.196). It was also through his language that he emphasized just how difficult Christopher tended to make situations for him and unfortunately not taking into consideration the type of communication his child could absorb. At one point stating, “Then he said, “Holy fucking Jesus, Christopher. How stupid are you?” (Haddon, 2003.p.81). Although, the father seemed usually very patient and understanding with Christopher, signs were shown of his gradual uneasiness. He had chosen not to relay the circumstances behind the cruel murder ofWellington to his son. Christopher’s comments held true, “Most murders are committed by someone who is known to the victim? (Haddon, 2003, p.42). Art imitating life? As a man who had been disgraced by his ex-wife’s infidelity and flight from her responsibilities, he was in his own emotional turmoil. He had killed the animal in a state of rage knowing it was wrong from a societal point of view. He observed the death of the animal as a symbol of releasing his hatred of the situation, the anger he held inside, the circumstances in with he had no control or power over. Was he brought up in his cultural setting knowing right from wrong? Probably so, Yes. Were his morals askew? Yes. Was he penalized for his actions? No. He concluded that the intentional death had resulted in newer struggles with Christopher. A bridge, a larger gap between himself and his son, emotionally, physically and stemming from a lack of trust. Their communication had reached a different level in hopes of creating a stronger relationship.
Point three: Judy Boone’s concern and emotional feedback for Wellington seemed small and trivial. Her life had been revolving around making a home for herself and her new mate. Trying to pick up the pieces and begin a new. Although, she ran from her own fears and insecurities into her neighbor’s arms, a man who at one time owned Wellington. She had no other connection with her past which consisted of befriending her neighbors and their dog. She had observed the animal’s death as a representation of a past that was already put to rest, her personal historical closure in a sense. There were no real signs of sympathy, as she concluded that the tears of her past had already been shed.
Point 4: Eileen Shear’s character was a neighbor of Christopher’s and the ex-wife of Roger Shears. She too had gone through many struggles as one divorce themselves from a cheating spouse. She cursed and utilized foul language, “Let go of the dog”, she shouted. Let go of the fucking dog for Christ’s sake.” (Haddon, 2003, p.4). She was not a religious woman as she used words that some would say were spoken in vain. She became a female influence in Ed’s and Christopher’s home. “This is why Mrs. Shears came over and did lots of cooking for us after Mother died, because she didn’t have to cook for Mr. Shears anymore and she didn’t have to stay at home and be his wife.” (Haddon, 2003, p.42). A relationship progressed, blossomed and ended with her and Ed. She observed the death of her dog with anger but no tears. Is the reader to assume that she found out who killedWellington which led to the ending of their friendship? She concluded the death was a malicious action based on her past experience with Ed.
Point 5: Siobhan is Christopher’s teacher, mentor and friend with attributes of, “…long blonde hair and wears glasses which are made of green plastic.” (Haddon, 2003, p.5). She knows how to communicate clearly with Christopher. She enlightened him on the inner workings of society and proper behavioral actions and reactions within its complicated rules. She observed the death ofWellington to be a learning experience for her student. She guided him in showing him an outlet of his feelings, through a new art form with the hopes of educating him. Therefore, she concluded that even though it was a sad occasion and a loss, the death brought about a positive ending and the personal growth of Christopher.
In conclusion as these points suggest, “what is “right”, “natural,” and “normal” are matters of definition. (Tyson, 2006, p. 285).
Haddon, M. (2003). The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.New York: Vintage Books.
National Autistic Society. (2010). Retrieved January 1, 2010, from http://www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=211
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Autism Fact Sheet. (2009).
Thompson. R.G. (1997). Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature.New York:ColumbiaUniversity Press.
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical theory today; A user –friendly guide.New York: Routledge.
Webster-Heard, S. (2010). What Does Autism Look Like? Retrieved January 1, 2010, from http://www.comeunity.com/disability/autism/autisticchild.html