Understanding and Working with the Spectrum of Autism: An Insider’s View by Wendy Lawson.
Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2001.
ISBN: 1-85302-971-8
Available in Canada from Irwin Publishing

Reviewed and Recommended by John Clifton of Guelph

Wendy Lawson’s Understanding and Working with the Spectrum of Autism: An Insider’s View is a lively and eclectic blend of analysis, argument, autobiography and poetry.  The book discusses the “Autism continuum” by explaining the difference between Autism, PDD, Asperger Syndrome and PDDNOS, as these have been delineated by psychiatrists and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV. While Lawson questions whether these labels are always accurate in individual cases, she also acknowledges that labels are valuable. Thus she writes “…I must say that if the baked beans in my cupboard were not labeled differently to the tins of cat food, then I would not know how to encounter these foods appropriately!  I think labels are useful” (p.64).

Indeed, for Lawson, having been finally labeled autistic appears to have been a very liberating experience.  At the age of 42 she was diagnosed as having Asperger Syndrome.  This followed years of being regarded as intellectually disabled and/or schizophrenic.  “From what I have read I now understand so much of my life experience and I am thankful to be free from the label of schizophrenia” (p.118). 

For Lawson, a misdiagnosis in this area can be devastating and she is anxious to pass along information gleaned from a wide variety of researchers on the nature of Autism.  The view that Autism is a result of inadequate parenting is dismissed at the outset.  Autism is probably genetic in origin or in some cases is the result of an injury to the brain, perhaps, for example, due to certain types of inoculation.

Despite many years of misdiagnosis, Lawson appears to have been a formidable person. She married (she is now divorced) and raised four children.  One of her sons has Asperger’s syndrome. Since receiving the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome for herself, she has blossomed even further.  She is, at the time of her book’s publication, pursuing a Ph.D. in Social Work.  She lectures at conferences and has written one other book, an autobiography entitled “Life Behind Glass” as well as many poems.

In addition to discussing the nature of Autism so that it will be more accurately diagnosed, Lawson is especially interested in exploring the ways in which autistic thinking differs from the thinking of neurotypicals.  For Lawson, many problems encountered by persons with Autism arise because of misunderstandings in this area.  For example, persons with Autism are likely to be “monotropic”.  This means that they will “focus in on one aspect of communication, or upon one interest at a time” (p.33). Lawson explains that it is this way of thinking that lies behind the autistic person’s inability to cope readily with change in their environment.  Neurotypicals are more able to go with the flow.  For persons with Autism, route changes, unannounced visitors, or other variations in routine can be deeply disturbing (p.37).  If neurotypicals do not understand this, it will appear that the person with Autism is getting upset about nothing.  This kind of misunderstanding can impact negatively on the autistic person’s self esteem and sometimes lead to intolerable levels of stress and anxiety (not only for persons with Autism but for their caregivers and families as well).  Lawson argues persuasively that it is crucial that the distinctive cognitive processes of persons with Autism be recognized.

In light of the forgoing, Lawson makes many recommendations regarding practical implications and interventions.  For example, since persons with Autism are likely to experience stress and anxiety, she recommends that a variety of interventions can help to alleviate these factors.  Music, open space, walking and the judicious indulgence of obsessive activities all have roles to play.  Regarding the latter, these should be “allowed…in an ordered, structured environment for a fixed amount of time only” (p.133).

Throughout her discussions, Lawson often illustrates her points with autobiographical examples.  Sometimes these take the form of poems that she has written since the time of her diagnosis.  These poems are interesting for the light they shed both upon the agonies and the joys of Lawson’s experience of having Autism.  Often unhappiness and even despair appear to be foremost: “Whatever it was,/ I was sure I’d do it wrong” (p.80); “If only I could just be me” (p.90); “All I feel is the pain” (p.36); “My mind can find no reason” (p.39); ‘My tears and confused frustration,/ At plans that do not appear,/ Are painful beyond recognition,/ And push me deeper into fear” (p.35). But Lawson’s poetry is also hopeful and informed by her view that while Autism can cause delays in development, these delays do not necessarily turn into permanent disabilities. This is especially true if an effort is made to recognize and accommodate autistic thought patterns and the anxiety that persons with Autism are likely to experience. “I value words of truth and light to help me find the way to fight./ I no longer walk in the shadows. I no longer feel estranged” (p.179). “We’ll learn together, explore this land/ Please allow me to hold your hand/ It won’t be easy but we’ll stand our ground,/ And come out triumphant, our friendship sound” (p.158). 

As Lawson observes, people with Autism have been frequently told that they suffer from “mindblindness” and that this lies behind their inability to understand that other people hold their own thoughts and beliefs quite separately from one another. Lawson agrees with this assessment of one aspect of autistic development, however, she does not regard it as a permanent disability. Although the apparent selfishness of the person with Autism is not chosen but rather is biologically predetermined, Lawson does not conclude that persons with Autism cannot overcome this tendency.  A comprehension of the “other” “certainly can be developed with time and effort” (p.48). In poetic terms, according to Lawson, “There were times the inner ‘Wendy’ felt completely dead and gone./ In order to resurrect her, ‘Love’ called and begged her ‘come’./ Wendy answered that sweet call and now true ‘life’ has begun.”p.178. 

Lawson’s message is profound and filled with a longing for community. On the one hand, she acknowledges the difficult divide that mindblindness appears to entail.  Neurotypicals care about other people; persons with Autism only care about themselves.  It is because persons with Autism are perceived as being selfish and indifferent to others that they present an especially great burden to neurotypical empathy. On the other hand, what Lawson’s book also affirms is that both persons with Autism and neurotypicals are capable of  ‘Love’. With the help of greater mutual understanding, both groups can achieve a lot more of it.