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Accommodation and Acceptance: Haddon’s Aim Through an Autistic Narrator

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Accommodation and Acceptance: Haddon’s Aim Through an Autistic Narrator

Mary Wilson

Since the medical identification of autism as a cognitive disorder, physicians, people with autism, and activists alike have struggled to project certain perspectives about autism into the public eye.  Some, for instance, view autism as a strictly neurologically based disease which should be researched in an effort to find a cure; these people often view the austistic as someone afflicted with illness, a person who is somehow stunted or ‘stolen away’ by their autism.  Others, contrastingly, perceive autism in a more positive light, as human variation which our culture should accomodate, rather than strive to eliminate.  Both viewpoints gain publicity in a number of ways which influence others into developing either positive or negative attitudes about autism; specifically, advancing the viewpoint of an individual with autism as fundamentally diseased serves only to heighten stereotypes and intolerance for a people.  Combating this viewpoint in his contemporary mystery novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon portrays the character of Christopher Boone, a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, as a young man who, although autistic, remains at the forefront of readers’ minds a human being, a celebration of difference and a case for accommodation of disability, rather than elimination of it.

Haddon’s decision to write from Christopher’s perspective immediately places readers within the austistic mind, forcing one to view everyday situations from a different viewpoint, heightening both our sense of understanding and appreciation for the way that the autistic brain functions.  Chris captures our attention quickly as he describes his dead neighbor’s dog “lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn…as if it were running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream” (Haddon 1).  His ability to frankly describe the nature of the animal’s death not only serves to shock and surprise us, but also elicits empathy, for both the innocent victim, Wellington, and for Chris, who reacts to the situation by coping the only way he can (curling into the fetal position) and who is consequently heckled by the police and taken to jail (8).  Chris’s reaction to the murder causes no serious harm to anyone, causing readers to question the purpose of the police officer’s negative attitude toward Chris, one that is born out of intolerance for diversity.  As Jay McInerny of the New York Times states, “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 the erratic emotionalism of the normal citizens who surround him, as well as our own intuitions and habits of perception” (McInerny).  Indeed, Chris’s narration, full of informative anecdotes and diagrams demonstrating his thought processes, maintains our initial empathy for Chris throughout the novel, increasing our understanding of people with autism as humans whose brains function differently, not defectively. 

The inclusion of other, more neurotypical characters within the novel also serves to realign readers’ stereotypes of ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ behavior.  For example, Chris’s father, a man who exhibits no signs of cognitive abnormality and who appears both calm and leel headed, kills Wellington, Mrs. Shears’s dog, out of heartbreak, stating that he was angry that “[Mrs. Shears] cared more for that bloody dog than for me, for us” (121).  Here, an unlikely contrast develops between Chris’s austistic yet logical and harmless behavior and his father’s instable emotionalism, causing readers to place Chris’s actions aboce his father’s on a scale of normality and ethics.  Praise for Chris and his strength in the face of deceit also surfaces when he discovers that his mother, whom he had presumed dead, actually ran away from the family, indirectly citing Chris as a cause of stress during a break down he had at the mall and “everyone was staring…and [she] wanted to take [him] out of the shop but [he] wouldn’t let [her]” (107).  Chris’s unfortunate circumstances reinforce the concept of the autistic as a morally worthy and apt individual while placing the ‘normal’ parents in a negative light.  Charlotte Moore of The Gaurdian explains the folly of the adults best when she states, “Christopher’s innocence makes him vulnerable, but it protects him too.  At the end, when order is restored, we see that he is a touchstone for adult behavior.   Those concerned with his welfare have to learn to temper their emotional needs around his autistic inability to compromise.”  Her evaluation clearly asserts the novel’s perspective on autism as that which is to be accommodated.   The ending of the novel, when the adults come together in an attempt to raise Chris in a loving environment, brings catharsis both for the parents (who repent of their intolerant actions) and for readers aliging themselves with Chris.

The novel’s joyful tone reinforces the idea of celebrating difference among human beings.  Despite Chris’s warning that his book “…will not be funny.  I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them” (8), Chris’s logical view of the world often results in deadpan humor, such as when he explains his problem with the metaphor “the apple of my eye,” explaining, “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).  Charlotte Moore further elaborates on the importance of the book’s humor when she states, “It is a funny book, as well as a sad one.  Christopher’s c0mpulsive noting of mundane facts provides comedy…especially in his dealings with the police and his classmates.  And Haddon’s inclusion of diagrams, timetables, maps, even math problems, extends the normal scope of novel-writing and demonstrates the rich idiosyncrasies of the autistic brain” (2).  Jay McInerny agrees that “[Chris’s] inability to interpret basic social cues results in moments of comedy,” which enhance readers’ positive opinion of the autstic narrator.  Through manipulation of humor, Haddon appeals to a basic human mood that unites people regardless of category; by having us laugh with Chris, the author implores us to relate to him, to temporarily disregard his difference, to understand his situation in order to interpret the joy in it.  Through Haddon’s inclusion of subtle comedy we unwittingly find ourselves celebrating Chris’s viewpoint, his difference as positive as we laugh with him, not at him.

Thus, through the use of an autistic viewpoint, comparison between the neurodiverse and supposed normality, and the development of subtle humor, Mark Haddon journeys us into the mind of a cognitively diverse individual in order to arouse both empathy for and admiration of disability as human difference.  It is with viewpoints and works such as Haddon’s that an uninformed or intolerant public can be influenced to realign their misconceptions about disability, reflect on their opinions, and eliminate discrimination in their treatment of others.  It is through celebratory portrayals of autism, like Haddon’s, that a popularization of the viewpoint of tolerance and accommodation can be achieved. 

Works Cited

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Vintage Books.  Random House Inc, New York, 2003.

McInerny, Jay. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Review.” New York Times. June 2003.  December 2010. www.query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9905EED81E

Moore, Charlotte. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Review.” The Gaurdian, 2003.  December 2010. http://books.gaurdian.co.uk/review/story/012084.html

Written by mwilson11

December 8th, 2010 at 1:30 pm