Through the Eyes of Aliens: A Book About Autistic People
By Jasmine Lee O’Neill. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999.
144 pages. ISBN 1-85302-710-3
Reviewed and Highly Recommended by Jan Cooper of Guelph for OAARSN
Jasmine O’Neill describes herself as a poet, writer, painter, illustrator and musician, which makes me feel that she will present the perspective of the life of a person with Autism in terms that will be moving and illuminating. That she also describes herself as a “classical Kanner autistic also with Asperger Syndrome traits” (p.15) assures you that she writes with authority about her subject. While Jasmine is described as a mute autistic savant on the book cover her “voice” comes through strong and clear in Through the Eyes of Aliens.
In her introduction Jasmine is quick to note that regardless of how many books or videos one watches to “thoroughly understand or appreciate this phenomenon” (p.11) it is important to realise that it will be impossible to understand everything about Autism because of the basic uniqueness of each individual. It is this gift of uniqueness that she celebrates and is determined to protect for her fellow autistics. She encourages anyone whose life touches that of an autistic person to really get to know him or her. Read what they write, look at their art, listen to their voices, ask questions, show respect, and learn from them. Jasmine says she wrote this book to educate those truly interested in what it means to experience life as someone with Autism – its joys, sorrows, challenges. She sees Autism as a beautiful event, one that shouldn’t be altered by those who believe they know what is best for the person with Autism. Ridicule, banishment, enforced personality changes are just not an acceptable method of working with an autistic person. Jasmine believes autistic people are often the victims of discrimination because of their very uniqueness, because they live their lives often in an unusual and interesting manner. She wants us to understand the ways of people with Autism and that she, like many others, does not want to “emerge from Autism”, a notion she finds foolish. People with Autism should be proud of themselves and with the encouragement of people who believe in them can use their special gifts.
Jasmine covers a wide range of topics: emotions, communication, intelligence, relationships, health, recreation, idiosyncrasies, even a chapter of those tumultuous teenage years. This last one may be helpful to many parents. As parents and caregivers of children with Autism we often struggle with trying to understand what they’re feeling about themselves, their bodies, their environment. Just when we think we’ve almost figured it out, they change their response and we’re back to square one. Now, throw into the mix body changes, sexual stirrings, personal hygiene, dating and romance! Jasmine believes that it is essential to teach some basic sex education to autistic teenagers, especially those more advanced. She says that if an interest is expressed in having a girlfriend or boyfriend you must accept that the underlying desire is both very real and very lovely, not something to be ridiculed. However there is a responsibility to make sure they are safe. This is a difficult life-stage for any adult dealing with an adolescent. Jasmine provides some insightful information about emotional and physical issues. She also acknowledges that the teen years may be a time where parents are unable to cope with impossible behaviour. Seeking professional support and possible changes in living arrangements is not a sign of failure on anybody’s part.
As Jasmine puts it:
“You have not stopped being the parent of that individual person. You are simply enlisting assistance from professionals who can help ensure that the autistic person gets excellent loving care, and has opportunities to have a pleasant, fulfilling life.” (pp.104-105)
Many of the chapters I read reinforced what I knew from experience and study, but there were two chapters in particular that really gave me some of those “ah ha” moments (to borrow a phrase from a well-know talk show host). The first dealt with discrimination. Jasmine asks you to walk in the shoes of a child with Autism entering the school environment for the first time. She calls this experience the end of bliss for the child. Jasmine uses words like fragile, shattered, confused, afraid. Not the experience we expect any of our children to have those first and subsequent days at school. Now add in whispered words: crazy, retard, idiot, freak. While Jasmine says, rightfully, that school shouldn’t be a place of pain, the autistic child’s initiation into this environment often leads to a shrinking away, an enfolding into oneself, into the autistic fortress where your battle will begin. I imagine there are few, if any parents and caregivers that haven’t sensed this retreat and felt both helpless for the child and outraged at the ignorance that would hurt them. Jasmine says the teacher must step in quickly to stop taunting, teach the children about Autism. As well, the teacher must supervise and protect the autistic child, while also being a friend who is an astute observer. Tall order!
The second chapter that touched me as a caregiver was titled Idiosyncrasies and Special Traits. Again Jasmine encourages the celebration of, respect for and understanding of the uniqueness of a person with Autism. She talks about curiosity, eccentricity, coping with changes, prejudice and more. I tried to find words to describe this chapter’s impact on me but once again I bow to Jasmine’s eloquence:
“Being close to an individual with Autism is about celebrating life. It’s about finding beauty in small things. It’s about overcoming society’s stigmas. It’s about learning fresh ways to look at things. It does not have to be about tragedy, or pain, or loss.” (p.120)
When I began reading this book I wondered at Jasmine’s choice of title and I suppose one’s assumption would be that she is speaking of her own “community”. In fact she says “many autistic people affectionately, humorously refer to themselves as aliens”. Perhaps she chose the title because society sees the so-called space-out or vacant stare of an autistic person and assumes there is no one “there”. Jasmine emphatically disagrees. In fact the look is likely being turned inward as complex images and thoughts swirl through that person’s mind. Do we punish the lack of eye contact, which is so uncomfortable for people with Autism, assuming that they are being rude and therefore not “like us”? Jasmine says our “typical” world is a “vast planet, which as a code of life, and understanding they can’t every quite subscribe to” (p.125). So how do we make them feel welcomed, accepted, and safe?
Perhaps the answer is in the epilogue to this book, which Jasmine addresses directly to people with Autism. She provides ideas for support, words of encouragement, positive affirmation of the unique qualities of Autism. She encourages them to feel deeply, celebrate their individuality, be strong, to “view themselves as a multi-faceted stain glass window. Think of your life as bursting with radiating, intense moods and colours. Your life can be a rainbow.” (p.130)
Living with Autism is challenging, often painful and frustrating. Jasmine wants everyone to remember that there can be joy, excitement and growth through those same challenges as well. Perhaps she wrote those words for us too. We can be part of that rainbow, pushing back some of the darkness of ignorance, isolation and discrimination, and loving the person we are with for the gift of their uniqueness.