By the time he reached kindergarten age, Kamran Nazeer hadn't ever spoken. When he was diagnosed with autism, his parents sent him to a new school in which small classes entirely made up of autistic students received specialized care and tutelage from skilled teachers. Years later, Nazeer (the penname of Emran Mian) is a British civil servant with a law degree and a philosophy doctorate. Intrigued by the relationships of his early years (in which it was assumed that relationships were too ambitious a goal for autistic children) and perturbed by his inability to remember details about his pre-linguistic life, Nazeer set out in search of his former classmates. Many declined to be a part of his project, and Nazeer was denied contact with others by understandably protective family members. There is certainly sufficient room in a project like this for exploitation, for turning human beings into emblems of their diagnosis. To Nazeer's immense credit, the book is uncomfortable with this urge, and hyper-aware of its own limits:
Several of the people whom I contacted for this book didn't want to be in it. Often, it was their parents who turned me down. Many autistic adults still live with their parents; they don't want to move out, or their parents are reluctant to let them try living on their own or else did let them try and it failed. In one case, an older brother denied me access. Another woman explained to me that she didn't think that participating in this book would, for her, be a positive experience. She tried not to think about being autistic very often. All I got from one of my former classmates was a crackly phone call made, I think, from a booth; I think that he was trying to give me an address, but he spoke very slowly, and I confused him by interrupting and asking for a number where I could call him back, and then there were beeps, he got cut off, and I never heard from him again. I'm afraid that, beyond this book, there may be a hinterland of autistic experience, remote and underformed. (142-3)
In fact, the self-consciousness of Send in the Idiots is its greatest strength. The best chapter is the fifth, in which (after meeting with four of his classmates and their families in the previous sections) Nazeer gets in touch with his former teachers, and describes the excruciating double-think involved in their conversations: are they still diagnosing him? (yes - they declare that he is no longer autistic), can they tell how nervous he is?, are they using that nervousness to manipulate him? The question of Nazeer's own autism lurks behind every stage of the process: how does it affect his writing, his interviews, his ability to form more than just authorial relationships with his subjects and their families?
The fifth is also the chapter in which we get the most contextual information about autism itself, including fascinating connections with the folk traditions of "feral children" (abandoned in the wild by bewildered parents) and "changelings," as well as fairly scathing accounts of both conventional parent-blaming and doom-declaring medical attitudes and the uncomfortable idealizations of anti-psychiatry (whose assertion that autism is a manifestation of genius is a variety of erasure in and of itself). It's unfortunate that this context comes only in the last chapter, because those of us who know little about autism (the book is pitched at a general audience) will be desperate for a more rigorous definition of it throughout the rest of the book. Perplexing questions (which might be unanswerable but shouldn't be unapproachable) pop up throughout - Since autism manifests itself through so many different symptoms, what unifies the autistic community under a single diagnosis? How long have we had an awareness of autism as separate from other disorders and diseases? Is it possible to be "cured" of autism, or to control the symptoms? Since the spectre of "getting better" looms darkly over virtually every chapter (and particularly the one about a classmate who committed suicide), this last question takes on particular urgency.
Instead we are plunged straight into the lives of Nazeer's classmates, and this lack of an initial guiding framework is only one of the many editorial errors that characterize the book. There is a good deal of needless repetition, and even more oddly, strange elisions (in which paragraphs refer back to events we haven't heard about). Typos and grammatical errors run rampant (including one in the book's last paragraph, which should have been scrutinized particularly carefully because of its place of importance). And then, of course, there is the problem of the title, which is never contextualized in a way that really reclaims the word "Idiots" from its pejorative connotations. I squirmed every time the titular phrase reappeared in the book.
An interesting project on an intriguing topic; I would like to read an even more rigorously self-conscious account of Nazeer's experiences.
Send in the Idiots (2006)