Autism, From the Inside Out
Thursday, February 14, 2008
HOW CAN I TALK IF MY LIPS DON'T MOVE?
Inside My Autistic Mind
By Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay
Arcade. 219 pp. $25
Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay is 19 and has published two memoirs, a book of short fiction and poetry; what is most remarkable about him, perhaps, is that a precocious literary output is only part of his story. Tito was declared hopelessly autistic at age 3, unable ever to communicate, without cognizance of the world, a being with no mental presence. His formidable mother, Soma, refused to accept this verdict and, though a chemist by training, developed her own system, now known as Rapid Prompting, for teaching him language and other subjects. By the age of 6, Tito was communicating fluently by means of a board with letters on it, to which he could point.
In his book "The Mind Tree," Tito explored his early years and education, which included everything from rounds of frustrating tests to Soma's binding a pencil to his fingers. His latest book, "How Can I Talk if My Lips Don't Move?," covers some of the same ground but also discusses his astonishingly rich sensory world, a place ripe with transformations and synesthesia: He perceives a man's voice as "long apple green and yellow strings" and another "which tasted like tamarind pickle," and remembers a teacher as a "yellow plastic bowl." "When I think of the wind," he writes in a line as simple and surprising as any from the poet Rilke, "I am the wind."
Tito's new book starts with his relationship to a mirror; 3 years old and mute, he told it stories and believed it wanted to tell him stories in return. He related to the world by focusing intently on selected features of it: spinning under ceiling fans, in order to feel his body; climbing stairs; "mapping" his body and environments to learn to dress and to eat.
Soma's teaching is integral to Tito's narration. She capitalized on his areas of focus -- using stairs to teach counting, telling stories about shoelaces to teach knot-tying. She taught language by having Tito point to letters on a signboard. Tito moved on to writing on paper, then to a computer keyboard; he speaks, but with difficulty, and sometimes uses a voice synthesizer. We don't get much sense, however, of the mechanics of Soma's teaching: The fact that she speaks to him in constant response to what he is doing, however trivial, never comes up. Even the history of the family's frequent moves is told through the impressionistic wash of Tito's senses: They go from Mysore to Bangalore to Los Angeles without much connective tissue. But even more than "A Mind Tree," this book documents a consciousness, one that hypothesizes about brain function, cites thinkers from neurologist Antonio Damasio to physicist Erwin Schroedinger, includes the author's poems, mulls over what "neuro-typicals" may be thinking -- all from an adolescent who, at 3, was declared to lack self-consciousness.
The one false note in Tito's book, ironically, does not come from Tito, but from the introduction by Margaret L. Bauman, who refers to his autistic "data gathering" and whose surprise at his intelligence, rather than at the fact of his intelligence being unlocked, pathologizes Tito's life in a way that the young man himself staunchly resists. Tito writes that, on learning of his mother's involvement with several "cure autism" groups, "I was astonished by Mother's involvement with the belief that autism is a disease and needs a cure. . . . Did Mother really think I was less of a person?" Tito delivers the story of a life that is a remarkably sensory experience. It takes no credit away from Soma to say it's less a journey out of himself, as the clinician's language suggests, than a movement to a place where Tito can allow us into a rich, poetic world that he renders in language so magical that it almost transcends metaphor.
At the end of the book, Tito addresses the question of whether he regrets his autism. Understandably, he answers no and yes: He is blessed by it, he writes, "when a little girl's giggles color the walls and ceilings with rainbow foam when she is amused by my echolalia because I am a mirror to her words." (Yet at times he regrets his condition from what he calls "the viewpoint of my social pride, when I wonder about the humiliation I will face in the future, when I am at the mercy of others." It is vital to remember that the pride or shame of persons like Tito is a constructed thing, based on the culture in which he finds himself, a culture constantly demanding proof of his ability to think. The value of a book like this may lie in its ability to help shift that burden of proof.