I’ve been trying for ages to write a review of THAT book. You know - ‘To Siri, with Love’. (I got it from the library, because not of all of us can afford to go out and buy new books, and anyway, why should I put money in her coffers?) Others have written theirs ages ago, but I’ve struggled with even reading it, picking it up and putting it down numerous times.
It’s not because it’s badly written that I’ve struggled so much with it. In fact, it’s fairly well-written, chatting away about her life and her sons, with that kind of wry, slightly self-deprecating humour which is always engaging. And she clearly loves her autistic son deeply, and he loves her too. He seems a loving, gentle, caring soul, and it’s great that she’s done what she can to nurture that. Also, she is in synch with us on at least some points, for instance (p 53) on stimming. (See, I’m trying to be fair.)
But. Sigh. I started to read - and the first sentence on the very first page, in the Author’s Note, says – “These days, it’s considered politically incorrect to call a person autistic.” Um… does she even realise that autistics themselves prefer ‘autistic’? Was she even aware of the existence of an adult autistic community, when she wrote that part? (If she wasn’t, I’m sure she is now!)
A few pages later (p7), she utters what is really the defining sentence of the book. “Every person with ASD I’ve ever met has some deficit in their theory of mind.” Read that again – EVERY person with ASD. Someone has already written an excellent analysis of this, so I only want to say this – Theory of Mind (TOM), as a hypothesis, in my opinion, has more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese. But even if it were true (and it’s a big if) – she’s forgotten one thing.
WE GROW UP.
The classic TOM tests are done on children. I don’t know a single adult autistic, no matter where they are on the spectrum, who lacks self-awareness, and who isn’t perfectly well aware that other people have different thoughts, feelings and opinions. We may have great difficulty in working out what those thoughts etc are, but we do know they have them. And, despite what she seems to think, I don’t think our difficulties with reading NTs (p 66) is a sign of TOM.
I soldiered on. Yes, all the horrible things others have quoted are there, and just as offensive in context as out of it. She asks, for instance (p 121), “how do you say ‘I’m sterilizing my son’ without sounding like a eugenicist?” Short answer – you can’t. And no amount of waffling on about the history of eugenics, or how there’s a “good success rate in vasectomy reversals”, just in case she ever changes her mind, will alter that. It isn’t even the issue.
The issue here is that IT’S HIS BODY. Not hers. His. It’s HIS right to decide whether or not he ever wants sex, wants to be a father, wants to have a vasectomy. Not hers. Got that, Ms Newman? And as for the ‘Benny Hill soundtrack’ comment, I’m old enough to remember Benny Hill, and frankly, I find it both revolting and mystifying to associate him in any way with that sweet boy.
I’m not going to dissect the book chapter by chapter – someone has already done that, way better than I could. My concern is rather with the underlying message of the entire book. Because despite her sometimes using adult autistics as a resource, her attitude to autistics in general is, well, troubling. I finally realised she really and truly feels, deep down, that being autistic is an inferior state, that to her we are a lesser breed of human. Even her attitude towards her own son seems rather like what you might have towards a beloved but somewhat less-than-perfect pet.
An example of this is when she compares her two son’s conversations with their friends. Her NT son’s conversation, riddled with smug one-upmanship, is somehow ‘better’ than gentle autistic Gus’s more straightforward communication (pgs 163-164), because it’s more ‘normal’, more ‘what friends are supposed to be about’. (Says who? Is there some rule book somewhere?) Or it’s more ‘proof’ of our lack of TOM. And on it goes. If autistic ways differ from NT, they’re bad, or lesser, or just wrong, or signs of a ‘deficiency’ in us… you get the picture, and I’m sure you’ve heard it all before.
There’s also her comments on autistic students at Cambridge objecting to Baron-Cohen’s suggestion that there will soon be a prenatal test for autism. While she allows that it’s okay to ‘not be normal’ (how kind of her!), she also says (p 213) “If you are on the spectrum and you’re at one of the finest universities in the world, you cannot speak for the person alone in a room, forever spinning the bright shiny object.” Translation: “you’re too high-functioning to understand/speak for the ‘really’ autistic”. I’ve already expressed my feelings about that sort of attitude here and here. Suffice to say that this kind of talk is both perpetuating a false division and unhelpful to all autistics. (Are you now understanding why it took me so long to read this book? It was all I could do to not repeatedly throw it across the room.)
And then there’s the issue of how she’s reacted to autistic objections to the book. Firstly, she seemed startled, saying that she hadn’t written it for autistics (imagine if a white woman wrote a book about raising a black child, then, when black people objected to her racism, said that she ‘hadn’t written it for black people to read’. Imagine the furore.) She’s followed this up with working systematically to silence our voices, even making pitying, denigrating comments about how our reactions are somehow ‘proof’ of that ‘lack of TOM’. Or perhaps, Ms Newman, we understand perfectly well when we’re being insulted and silenced, and quite naturally object to it.
The irony of us using the self-awareness and awareness of ‘different minds’ that we’re not supposed to have, in order to protest her state of mind, is not lost on me. It seems to be lost on her though – she seems unable to understand our states of mind, our opinions and feelings, how hurt we feel, how pushed out into the cold, how dehumanised, yet again.
This book is a strange mixture of awareness, confusion, misunderstanding, and sort-of-acceptance mixed with subconscious prejudice. It’s absolutely riddled with ableism. Despite being entertaining, despite it no doubt appealing to the ‘autism mommy’ crowd, it won’t make our lives any better. I doubt it will even make the lives of our parents any better, except perhaps in a “confirmation bias” kind of way.
The list of those who have done the autistic community a disservice is, alas, a long one. Ultimately, and sadly, Ms Newman has just been added to that list.