Friday, 4 April 2014

Senses: For the National Autistic Society

Last week I gave a speech at the Spectrum Ball, which is the yearly fundraiser for the National Autistic Society. It was an excellent event: Simon Amstell threw grapes at the crowd; Jack Whitehall talked about s*****ing (interpret that as you wish); Francis Boulle offered up the most enormous diamond I've ever seen (well, I suppose that's not saying much, but still); Daisy Lewis glamorously held the hat for the tickets; Fred Page sang beautifully, and Geordie Naylor-Leyland sang (beautifully too) about dwarves, cheese and fat girls.

It's easy at these kinds of events to lose sight of what exactly they are for. The NAS asked me to contribute a piece to their programme, so since it's not available online I have decided to publish it here. Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are areas where not much is known, and raising awareness in the general public is of paramount importance.

Here's the piece, entitled Senses:

Humans have more than five senses. We can balance. We can feel pain. We can touch our noses with our eyes closed (try it now – you’ll see if you’ve drunk too much.) We can calibrate changes in temperature. We can echolocate. (Well, maybe not the last one.)

All of this information hurls into our brains – literally at the speed of light and sound. Most people can order it, sort it, process it, and present a picture of the world around us which helps us navigate. We package up all this data and, almost instinctively, deduce things from it that seem obvious and – indeed – normal.

We can all say, objectively: we are in a room with lots of people gathered to raise money for The National Autistic Society. We can look at the person on our left, and judge if they are hungry, tired, happy or bored.

As language and society evolved, humanity developed these simple deductions into a whole, subtle code of signals and signs which tell us about other people, and, more importantly, how to deal with other people. When you catch the waiter’s eye and raise your eyebrows you’re telling him a lot; when you shrug, or fold your arms, or make a face, you are communicating without even trying.

But imagine if you couldn’t do those things. Imagine if, somewhere along the line, the information that the universe gives you got scrambled.

Imagine if the words that hit your ears became long strings of meaningless sounds, and that you could only understand one sentence in three.

Imagine if all the things you saw were so bright and overwhelming that you could only make out one major piece of information – and that that thing wasn’t even the right thing.

Imagine if everyone else in the room was shouting at you because you’d got that information wrong, but you didn’t even know why or how.

The world that we know suddenly becomes an alien, frightening place. Everybody else seems to move to a different rhythm. They know how to talk, how to race, how to win. They know how to catch a train, drive a car, do the shopping. They seem to know how to live, how to be what we call normal.

But you can’t. And what’s worse is that you yourself don’t know why you can’t.

So in order to gain some sense of order in your life, you begin to categorise what you can.

It might be the way your food is arranged. It might be a pattern of cars, or a song that you heard at a certain time. It might be a phrase that somebody said to you once, whose meaning you keep trying to unpack and unpick.

It might be a comic you read when you were 4, or a sound that a radiator makes at night.

All of these things are anchors – recognisable points in the rush of things which tell you who you are.

If these patterns become upset, then you become upset, because you have no control. You hold on to the only part of your senses that makes any sense at all.

And this doesn’t always make any sense to other people. You feel trapped, anxious, scared, alone and frightened.

The autistic spectrum is a broad one, and something that still isn’t fully understood. We have been making huge strides in our understanding of the many conditions that lie along it, and how to care for and aid those people that have it.

Really that’s what I would like you to remember. That each person who has an autistic spectrum disorder is just that – a person, like you or me, with emotions, feelings, and senses. Each case is different: there is no easy solution or “cure”.

That is why we need as much help as we can get to raise awareness and funds to help those who suffer from it.

Remember: people on the autistic spectrum disorder aren’t making no sense. They’re trying to make sense. And that’s what all of us, in this often bewildering world, are trying to do.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Half Bad by Sally Green: review

I've reviewed Sally Green's Half Bad for the Guardian. Read it here.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cake and Consequences: First Story continues at St Augustine's, Kilburn

Yesterday I had my final First Story session of the year at St Augustine's Church of England High School, Kilburn, where we discussed the organisation and content of our anthology, CAKE AND CONSEQUENCES, which will be published in June.

Before I left, I asked them to write in six words what the First Story experience had meant to them. Here are a few:

"Provides freedom to create, without judgement."

"First Story has changed my life!"

"A once in a lifetime experience."

And perhaps my favourite:

"First Story was like a unicorn."

Says it all, really, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Luton Hoo Kids Book Festival May 11th

What ho to all and sundry: I shall be attending the Luton Hoo Kids' Book Festival on May 11th 2014, reading from THE BROKEN KING. I suggest that you come. There will be other people there, among them Piers Torday, Jon Mayhew and Julian Sedgwick. It promises to be a highly amusing day.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Rebecca Hunt: Everland review in Literary Review

I've reviewed Rebecca Hunt's Everland for the March issue of Literary Review. Not available online, only in a lovely, gleaming, real print copy.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Harry Potter and The Goldfinch: How they are related

Warning: Doesn't move
So I've finally finished Donna Tartt's mostly enjoyable The Goldfinch, which weightily discusses the purpose of moving art around. It has been widely reviewed, obviously, and its relationship to the Harry Potter series (which has got moving art in it) has already been noted. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Tartt is saying: you've had your Portkeys and your spells and your wands. True magic lies in the things that man makes.

Here, then, is how they are related.




The Goldfinch

Orphaned boy with glasses & scar

Parents killed, one in terrorist attack, one in accident

Sent to live with horrid relatives

Finds solace with wise older man

Falls for bright ginger girl

Has goofy, slightly irritating friend

Gets his kicks from magic drugs

Dates the wrong girl

Has an enemy called Lucius

Moves a painting around

Finally defeats "evil"

Nickname: Harry Potter

Published by Bloomsbury, then Little, Brown
 
Harry Potter

Orphaned boy with glasses & scar

Parents killed in wizarding terrorist attack


Sent to live with horrid relatives

Finds solace with wise older wizard

Falls for bright ginger girl

Has goofy, slightly irritating friend

Gets his kicks from magic

Dates the wrong girl

Has an enemy called Lucius

Has paintings that move around

Finally defeats evil

Nickname: Harry Potter

Published by Bloomsbury, then Little, Brown

Monday, 17 February 2014

Yet More Notes from Underground

Photo from Flickriver
I'm going to have another manic underground-going day quite soon, when I'll do more anthropological research into what people are reading on the tube, but in the interim I thought I'd post a simple list of books I've seen in the last fortnight. It shows a breadth of reading material that I found quite delightful.

Isaac Bashevic Singer
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (naturally)
A book by Mark Mazower
Hester by Mrs Oliphant - this was most pleasing. I don't think I've ever seen anyone reading this, even in a library.
The American Future by Simon Schama
Hunger Games (see Wolf Hall)
The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
The Arabian Nights
Things I Don't Want to Know  by Deborah Levy - in a striking purple Penguin paperback edition.
The Bolter by Frances Osborne
Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton - the hot new history book by my old chum. I saw an old lady reading it on the bus and almost tapped her on the shoulder to tell her I knew the author. Which would have been weird.
Huckleberry Finn
Cloud Atlas  by David Mitchell
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
A book by Richard Power.

There is a lot to be heartened by here: an eclectic mixture of the popular, the classic, the heavyweight and the recondite. Londoners are reading still, and they are reading broadly, eagerly, and, perhaps thanks to the peace-inducing state of the tube, more thoroughly than ever.

Stay tuned for a full examination. A previous assessment can be read here.