Novelist David Mitchell looks back on the heartbreak – and joy – of learning that his son had autism.
So. The child psychologist across the desk has just told you that your three-year-old is “presenting behaviour consistent with that of an individual on the autistic spectrum”. You feel trepidation, sure, a foreboding that your life as a parent is going to be much tougher than the one you signed up for, but also a dash of validation. At least you now have a 10-page report to show to friends and relatives who have been insisting that boys are slower than girls, or that late language is to be expected in a bilingual household, or that you were just the same at that age. It’s a relief that your child’s lack of eye contact, speech and interest in picture books now has a reason and a name. You send some generic emails to people who ought to know first containing the words “by the way”, “looks like”, “has autism”, “but don’t worry” and “confirmed what we thought anyway”. The replies come quickly but read awkwardly: condolences are inappropriate in the absence of a corpse, and there aren’t any So Sorry Your Offspring Has Turned Out Autistic e-cards. People send newspaper cuttings about autism, too – about how horse-riding and shamans in Mongolia helped one kid, about a famous writer whose son has autism and is doing fine, about a breakthrough diet based on hemp and acacia berries. The clippings go in the compost.
You read books to learn more – until now, the closest you’ve come to autism is watching Rain Man or reading The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. Autism proves to be a sprawling, foggy and inconsistent field. Causes are unknown, though many careers are fuelled by educated guesses. MMR is the elephant in the room, but you’ll get to know a number of people with autism who never had the injection, so you draw your own conclusions, like everyone else – until such time as harder data emerges from the vast control group of MMR refusers’ children created by the scare. Symptoms of autism appear to be numerous. Some are recognisable in your own son, but just as many are not. You learn that luminaries such as Bill Gates have “high-functioning autism”: “low-functioning” people with autism lead less visible lives. You hope for the best.