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Autism and Representation
Case Western Reserve Univ
Cleveland, Ohio
28-30 October 2005



Gyasi Burks-Abbott
Cambridge, MA
Do not cite without permission of author.

"Mark Haddon's Popularity and Other Curious Incidences in My Life as an Autistic"

He presents an archetype, a distillation...There are dozens of ways of having Asperger's or of being Aspergen.   I don't think there is anything false or misleading here, but it can't represent the whole spectrum.
---- Oliver Sacks

According to Mark Haddon, when he set out to tell the story of Christopher Boone, the mathematically gifted but socially challenged narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , the author had no intention of writing a book about the Autism Spectrum.   What galvanized Haddon's imagination was the image that opens the book--a dog impaled on a garden fork.   What guided Haddon through the process of telling the story behind this bizarre image was the need to keep the reader interested in what the author himself considered mundane, a disabled teenager living with his father in Swindon, England.  

Autism, for Haddon, might have simply been a literary strategy, for, as Polly Worrick points out in "Autism as Metaphor,"

It's easy to see autism's appeal to storytellers.   Even mildly autistic peoplehave problems communicating and understanding social behavior; what's more, these difficulties remain tantalizingly unexplained in an era when medical advances have demystified so many other aliments.   We now know too much about, say, cholesterol, for a writer to portray heart disease as metaphorically as Ford Maddox Ford did almost a century ago in 'The Good Soldier.'   But writers can still turn to autism when they're looking for an ailment that can drive a plot and convey what English teachers once called 'layers of meaning.'   ( New York Times , July 31, 2005)

Indeed, as Michiko Kakutani suggests in "Books of the Times:   Math and Physics?   A Cinch.   People?   Incomprehensible," autism was a perfect vehicle for Haddon:

Christopher's inability to lie about the events he is recounting and his inability to sentimentalize his actions or the actions of others lend the story a visceral, stripped-down power, an understated precision that enables the author to talk about the big issues of love and mortality and loss without sounding maudlin or trite.   ( New York Times , June 13, 2003).  

In using autism to establish dramatic irony, Haddon enriches his unlikely story about a Sherlock Holmes fan's investigation into the death of a neighbor's dog even before the revelation toward the end of the book of a family secret far more explosive than who killed the canine?   Along the way, the reader is privy to the internal thoughts of someone Mel Gussow describes as "the most unusual adolescent one is likely to meet in or out of fiction" ( New York Times , August 3, 2004).

As much as Haddon disavows any conscious attempt to enter the flow of autism discourse (even going as far as to agree with one reader that Curious is as much about a gifted boy with behavior problems as it is about anyone on the autism spectrum), theories and thoughts about the disorder are evident in the plot choices Haddon makes in constructing the character of Christopher.   Haddon elaborates in an interview with Dave Weich of

I wanted the whole book to be in Christopher's voice, but the paradox is that if Christopher were real he would find it very hard, if not impossible, to write a book.   The one thing he cannot do is put himself in someone else's shoes, and the one thing you have to do if you write a book is put yourself in someone else's shoes.   The reader's shoes.   You've got to entertain them, and there's no way he could have done that...The answer I came up with is having him be a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories.    That way, he doesn't have to put himself in the mind of a reader.   He just has to say, I enjoy Sherlock Holmes Stories and I'll try to do something similar to that [italics his].

Christopher's inability to "put himself in someone else's shoes" refers to his lack of theory of mind, "the ability to attribute independent mental states to oneself and others, in order to explain behavior" (Happe 39), a liability that experts argue lies at the core of what makes autism a disabling condition.   Cognitive psychologist Uta Frith suggests the following in Autism:   Explaining the Enigma :

Lack of a theory of mind makes sense out of the whole host of seemingly unconnected behavioral symptoms...What often appears as a language problem can be better understood as a problem in the semantics of mental states.   Similarly, what appears as a problem in affective relationships can be understood as a consequence of the inability to realize fully what it means to have a mind and to think, know, believe and feel differently from others.   What often appears as a problem in learning to become socially competent can be understood from exactly the same point of view:   learning outwardly the forms of social rules is not sufficient--one needs the ability to read between the lines, and yes, to read other people's thoughts.   (173)   

In addition to suffering from this fundamental autistic deficiency, Christopher, like any prototypical autistic, dislikes fiction, distrusts metaphor, disdains touch, and does not understand humor.

Interestingly enough, while Haddon apparently uncritically accepted that Christopher lacked a theory of mind while developing the character, the author seems to do an about face on that initial presumption when telling Christopher's story.   Not only does Haddon have Christopher state that he can learn theory of mind but also Haddon has Christopher demonstrate theory of mind in the cat-and-mouse game he plays with his father.   For instance, Christopher shows a particularly keen ability to infer another's intentions when he finds the manuscript that his father has hidden from him:

I was happy because Father hadn't thrown the book away.   But if I took the book he would know that I had been messing with things in his room and he would be very angry and I had promised not to mess with things in his room.   Then I heard his van pulling up outside the house and I knew that I had to think fast and be clever.   So I decided that I would leave the book where it was because I reasoned that Father wasn't going to throw it away if he put it in the shirt box and I could carry on writing in a another book that I would keep really secret and then, maybe later, he might change his mind and let me have the first book back again and I could copy the new book into it.   And if he never gave it back to me I would be able to remember most of what I had written, so I would put it into the second secret book and if there were bits I wanted to check to make sure I had remembered them correctly I could come into his room when he was out and check.   (93-4)    

In addition to being able to understand the concept that people can change their minds (something the theory of mind hypothesis suggests that autistics can not comprehend), Christopher is also able to separate what he knows (that the book has been discovered) from what his father knows (that the book has been hidden).  

Showing a similar degree of social sophistication, Christopher sneaks past his sleeping father wondering if the latter is setting a trap for him:

Father's eyes were still closed.   I wondered if he was pretending to be asleep.   So I gripped the penknife really hard and I knocked on the doorframe.   Father moved his head from one side to the other and his foot twitched and he said 'Gnnnn,' but his eyes stayed closed.   And then he snored again.   He was asleep.   That meant I could get out of the house if I was really quiet so I didn't wake him.   (123)

Christopher's exaggerated fear of his father and his ability to consider the possibility that someone is pretending in order to deceive suggests that an autistic can, in fact, have both social naiveté and a theory of mind.        

In addition to his inadvertent refutation of the theory of mind hypothesis, Haddon also fails to confirm his assumption that autistics are literal thinkers.   Christopher may eschew metaphor, but he clearly understands the concept and even knows the word's etymological roots.   George Orwell, in fact, takes a stance similar to Christopher's in the "Politics of the English Language":

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit.   When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.   Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations.   (490)

In other words, Christopher's conclusions regarding the use and abuse of metaphor has merit:  

It should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards.   And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone's eye doesn't have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about.   (15)

Furthermore, as Christopher explains in a footnote to one of his analogies, he does not hesitate to use figurative language when he finds it appropriate:  

This is not a metaphor ; it is a simile , which means that it really did look like there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, and if you make a picture in your head of a man with two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, you will know what the police inspector looked like.   And a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile.   (17)  

Although Christopher's prose in the above quotation borders on the poetic, Haddon's linguistic parsing has the unfortunate effect of moving autistics one-step forward and two steps back.   While the only difference between a metaphor and a simile, for most people, is the use of the words "like" or "as," for Christopher, and by implication all autistics, the use or non-use of these two words apparently makes all the difference in the world to Haddon.   By downgrading simile to "the level of plain narration," Haddon succeeds in rendering autistics like Christopher, who use some form of figurative language, still incapable of engaging in abstract thought. 1  

The Curious Incident of the Dog at Midnight has had a powerful and seductive effect on the popular imagination.   In "The Remains of a Dog," critic Jay McInerney adumbrates the novel's wide-ranging influence:  

Haddon manages to bring us deep inside Christopher's mind and situates us comfortably within his limited, severely logical point of view, to the extent that we begin to question the common sense and erratic emotionalism of the normal citizens who surround him, as well as our own intuitions and habits of perception ( New York Times , June 15, 2003).

Moreover, just as Haddon's father temporarily adopts Christopher's disdain for the color yellow and changes the route of his evening walk to avoid three yellow cars that are perpetually parked in the same place, readers report thinking like Christopher several days after finishing Curious .   I, myself, starting censoring my use of similes--I did not want to be complicit in upholding an old stereotype with a new twist--until I realized there are just some comparisons that convey meaning most effectively when phrased with "like" or "as."   And I know for a fact that the charm of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time worked its magic on the Executive Director of the Asperger's Association of New England before it wore off.   On her first encounter with the novel, the executive director felt Haddon had succeeded in capturing Asperger's Syndrome perfectly.   Upon further reflection--and feedback from autistics themselves--she came to the conclusion that Christopher is not Asperger's at all.  

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the new Rain Man , the definitive, popular account of the autistic condition.   Back in the early nineties when I was first diagnosed with autism, the only way I could counter the blank stares I would get when I disclosed my condition was to mention the 1988 movie Rain Man , a movie that left a deep imprint on the popular psyche.   I once told a Harvard student I was autistic, and he was about to tell me that he had had a friend with the same condition until he realized he was thinking about Dustin Hoffman.   Less personal Rain Man -inspired reactions to my autism were the people who wanted to know about my particular savant skills.   

Today, when I tell lay people that I am autistic, the first and only question they ask is, "Have I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ?" not out of respect for what I think but to ensure that I understand my own idiosyncrasies and weaknesses.   As I have previously illustrated, the media share as much responsibility as Haddon for this travesty.   Rather than recognizing and remarking on the books that autistics have written-- Beyond the Wall:   Personal Experiences with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome , Songs of the Gorilla Nation:   My Journey Through Autism , Nobody Nowhere:   The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic , and Thinking in Pictures:   And Other Reports from my Life with Autism , just to name a few--they accept Haddon's unsubstantiated conclusion "that if Christopher were real he would find it very hard, if not impossible, to write a book."  

Ahh, and that's the rub.   High-functioning autistics, like me, who love fiction, appreciate metaphor, enjoy humor, and can speak and write quite well for themselves are not given a level playing field--particularly when fiction supersedes fact and the limitations Haddon attributes to Christopher, for instance, militate against autistic self-representation.   As the Chicago Tribune 's blurb asserts, "Haddon's gentle humor reminds us that facts alone don't add up to a life, that we understand ourselves only through metaphor," a humor that relegates individuals perceived as unable to use metaphor as equally incapable of relating their truths to the world.   Finally, instead of questioning the multifarious flaws in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time --flaws that should make the student of literature question the novel's artistic merits--too many critics have been all too willing to attribute the book's inconsistencies to Christopher and the mystique that surrounds autism than to Haddon's inability to sustain his creative vision.


1.   In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson uttered the following statement in reference to blacks' inability to use figurative language:   "But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration" (140).     

Works Cited

Frith, Uta.   Autism:   Explaining the Enigma .   Cambridge, MA:   Blackwell, 1989.

Gussow, Mel.   "Novel's Sleuth Views Life From Unusual Perspective."   New York

Times 3 Aug. 2004.   30 Aug. 2005 < >.

Haddon, Mark.   The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time .   New York:   Vintage,


Happe, Francesca.   Autism:   An Introduction to Psychological Theory .   Cambridge, MA:  

Harvard UP, 1994.

Jefferson, Thomas .   Notes on the State of Virginia .   Chapel Hill, NC:   UNC Press, 1954.    

Kakutani, Michiko.   "Books of the Times; Math and Physics?   A Cinch.   People?  

Incomprehensible."   New York Times 13 June 2003.   30 Aug. 2005 < >.

McInerney, Jay.   "The Remains of the Dog."   New York Times 15 June 2003.   30 Aug.  

2005 < >.  

Morrice, Polly.   "Autism as Metaphor."   New York Times 31 July 2005.   30 Aug. 2005

< >.

Orwell, George.   "Politics of the English Language."   The Writer's Reference:   A Pool of

Readings .   Ed. Donald MCQuade.   New York:   Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.   481-

496. .   2005.   Powells Books.   8 Oct. 2005

< >.





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