I have been reading a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales and came across this one which struck me as an excellent portrait of autism: Clever Hans. It’s very short (Link to fairy story: http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-42.html
), but here’s a summary for those who cannot be bothered to look it up:
Hans brings a series of things home to his mother. These range from a pin, through a knife, side of bacon, a goat, a calf and finally a person. Hans uses inappropriate means to transport each item home, so his mother tells him each time how he should have transported that particular item. Each time Hans is told how to transport an item home he applies that method to the next item. However, the next item is something quite different so that the method is, again, inappropriate.
Finally, Hans’ mother instructs him to caste friendly eyes upon his betrothed. Hans digs the eyes out of all the goats and cows in the shed and throws them at the girl, who promptly breaks their engagement!
This story just strikes me as a beautiful portrayal of how the minds of the autistic work: they are too literal, they need to have instructions to carry out the simplest of tasks, and they are unable to adapt instructions to slightly different situations. And, most notably, they CANNOT LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE………Hans can never even see that he has done something wrong!
Should one really say that Hans is just different? Would it not be more appropriate to say that there is something wrong with him and he needs help?
This story illustrates an interesting aspect of the Autistic mind: Hans takes everything very literally, and is unable to adapt, or see that instructions given for one job are inappropriate for another. Hans, therefore, need instructions for every single job. He cannot see that you have to carry a knife in a different way from a pin, and that a goat should be carried differently from a side of bacon etc. Therefore, where a normal person would assess what they were going to carry and chose a method accordingly, Hans has to be instructed. Thus, where a normal person has a relatively high awareness of both themselves and their environment, and uses all sorts of mental abilities, learning from experience, thinking, problem solving, making connections, prioritising, identifying the significant from the mass of irrelevant data, organising thoughts, assessing and so on, Hans has to use MEMORY.
Autistic people commonly have exceptional memories, and that is because they have to rely so heavily upon them, and because, their minds being so limited, they can/must devote all their resources to memorising.
Such an exceptional memory can be very deceptive. Often people seem to be good at something when it is only memory they are using. When you learn to spot the symptoms, you can see that some very much admired thinkers are actually only relying on memory. Thus an autistic person can SEEM to be exceptional at some academic subject, philosophy perhaps, when all they are displaying is a very exceptional memory. So to say that an autistic person is just different but valuable because of their exceptional ability in, say, philosophy, is to misunderstand what is going on in the mind of such a person.