The Curious Incident of the Dog
The Curious Incident of the Dog is the story of how a 15 year old people with autism boy solves the mystery of who murdered his neighbor's dog. [Of course there is more to it, but I am not giving spoilers away.]
In 2003, a lady who works at a special needs school in Singapore showed it to me and asked for my comment. I read two pages. The protagonist (Christopher Boone) was describing his stream of consciousness. As I read, I felt my mind spinning. I gave up trying to untangle my confusion, returned the book and thanked the lady. When she asked for my comments again, I mentioned politely that the book was not really about autism.
Years later, I figured out why. The book was written by someone pretending to be autistic. No wonder I was puzzled! It was usually people with autism pretending to be "normal", not the other way around!
WARNING: THIS BOOK WILL NOT HELP YOU UNDERSTAND REAL AUTISTICS
Mark Haddon did not use the word "autism" in his book, let alone claim to portray autism accurately. He even spoke publicly against using his book as an autism textbook. Certainly, he was not at fault. I have nothing against Mark Haddon or his work. In fact, I finally understood enough about non-autistic people to enjoy it in 2006.
However, seeing that the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has became very popular, I feel that I must explain why it should not to be taken seriously when many people (including teachers and autism professionals) recommend it as reading material on autism. Instead of a fictitious novel, I recommend reading real autism reference books by authors like Dr. Temple Grandin and Donna Williams. They have many accurate and useful first-hand insights on autism.
While reading the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I noted that Christopher is highly self-aware, and could articulate his thoughts so clearly. This was very different from my own experience. At his age, I was still mostly in a state of sleepwalking. I was unaware of my own emotions, body and situational awareness.
I had Asperger's Syndrome and was very high functioning. I went through normal schooling without any help, medication or trouble with the school authorities. The lower-functioning people with autism probably have even less self-awareness than me. However, Mark Haddon could not have had a story if Christopher could not able to convey to us what is happening within him. Thus, his depictions of Christopher's inner state are used to advance his story and interest viewers. They are not meant to represent the autistic consciousness.
On page 163, there is a passage that goes like this:
And one day, Julie sat down at a desk next to me and put a tube of Smarties on the desk, and she said, "Christopher, what do you think is in here?"
And I said, "Smarties".
Then she took the top off the Smarties tube and turned it upside down and a little pencil came out and she laughed and I said, "It's not Smarties, it's a pencil" .
Then she put the little red pencil back inside the Smarties tube and put the top back on.
Then she said, "If your Mommy came in now, and we asked her what was inside the Smarties tube, what do you think she would say?", because I used to call Mother Mummy then, not Mother.
And I said, "A pencil".
That was because when I was little I didn't understand about other people having minds. And Julie said to Mother and Father that I would always find this very difficult. But I don't find this difficult now. Because I decided that it was a kind of puzzle, and if something is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it."
This passage shows an amazing level of self-consciousness, expressed as if Christopher could dissect his own brain. I believe is the last thing a child with autism would say. I also believe that it is not minds per se that people with autism could not understand, but the concept of their own self.
When I became aware of autism, I was more interested to discuss how irrational and strange non-autistics were. The novel does not address the great confusion, frustration, anxiety and loneliness people with autism undergo. Many people with autism have to constantly validate themselves about how good they are in order fight against their own low self-esteem. The last thing I wanted to do at that time was to acknowledge that other people were superior to me.
In addition, I feel that the passage also shows a gross misunderstanding of the people with autism perception and reasoning patterns. Perhaps the passage might be rewritten in this manner.
I was put in a cold room smelling of strangeness-A (translated: antiseptic). The lady with big black glasses asked me many questions. I just answered as much as I can.
For example, she showed me a Smarties (tube) and asked me what it is. I said, "Smarties". Then she took out a pencil from the Smarties (tube) and made some odd sounds and movement (translated: slight laughing and smiling).
I remained still, not knowing what to do or say, except that the light glaring off her glasses is disturbing me, so I flicked my eyes around her spectacle frame. She asked me what I saw. Glancing at her hand, I replied "a pencil". Then she put the pencil back into the Smarties tube.
She asked me, "If your Mommy came in now, and we asked her what was inside the Smarties tube, what do you think she would say?"
I took a while to understand what she said. It was a long sentence and I must grind through it carefully. She repeated the question again, and again. After a while, I concluded that it meant: "What is inside the tube?" So I answered her: "A pencil."
And no one ever knew what was really happening.
On page 208, there is a passage that goes like this:
So I carried on walking. And I could feel the feeling like a balloon inside my chest and it hurt and I covered my ears with my hands and I went and stood against the wall of a little shop which said "Hotel Reservations Tel: 0207 402 5164" in the middle of the big room and then I took my hands away from my ears and I groaned to block out the noise and i looked round the big room at all the signs to see if this was London. And the signs said:
"Sweet Pasteries Heathrow Airport Check-In Here Bagel Factory ..."
After a few seconds they looked like this:
because there were too many and my brain wasn't working properly and this frightened me so I closed my eyes again and slowly counted to 50 but without doing the cubes.
When I read this passage, I shook my head and muttered: "That's not it". The entire passage just sounds wrong to my intuition. As far as I know, perception remains constant (so if they are distorted already they will be distorted from the start). The idea that Christopher would think that his mind is not working right is kind of far-fetched too.
Perhaps the passage might be rewritten in this manner.
So my legs just wandered around where my eyes pointed me. The world became dizzy and confusing. There are too many lines (translated: words from people) striking me. I tried to cover my eyes and scream so that these lines would go away, but they won't.
I screamed more.
The world became flashes and dots of light and lines. I sank into darkness and sleep.
On page 84 of the book, there is a passage that goes like this:
And he said, "What's 251 times 864?"
And I thought about this and I said: "216,864". Because it was a really easy sum because you just multiply 864 X 1000 which is 864,000. Then you divide it by 4 which is 216,000 and that's 250 x 864. Then you add another 864 on to it and get 251 x 864. And that's 216,864.
The paragraph shows Christopher working logically through the sums in a short period of time. People (no matter having autism or not) who have trained in speed mathematics can achieve this feat too. However, if Christopher is a savant (who can calculate faster than a calculator but without any training or awareness of speed mathematics), he would not be reasoning the numbers out in his head. Instead, he would tap into the parallel processing power of his brain, using the kinesthetic and visual processors. If I could rewrite this paragraph, perhaps it might read like this:
And he said, "What's 251 times 864?"
As Christopher heard this, in his mind appeared two green shapes that looked a lot like uneven cubes. The shapes clashed into each other and rippled with lots of tiny cubes, squares and triangles. Eventually a new shape was formed. Christopher replied: "216,864".
He was shocked. "Wow, that's even faster than a calculator. How did you do it?"
Christopher was puzzled and thought carefully about what he meant. Perhaps he was asking who solved the sum. "I did."
"I mean, what trick did you use?"
It took me a while for Christopher to understand what he said. Maybe he means, tricks as in cheating. So he means if Christopher had cheated. "No."
"I don't get it," he declared. And to this very day, he still could not figure out Christopher's secrets.
As a side-note, people with autism youths usually have to struggle to understand human speech, especially the context behind every word. The smooth flow of thoughts and the apparent ease of understanding human speech in the novel are highly unrealistic experiences.
Although there are more discrepancies in the book, I believe that these 3 examples are enough food for thought. I wrote this not to belittle The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but to remind readers that this book is not designed to help them to understand real autistics.
Usually, I do not like to critique other people's work. I prefer to publish works to convey the experience of autism more clearly.
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