Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: Nobody Nowhere

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: Nobody Nowhere
Author: Donna Williams

Author's web page:
Date: 1992
Publisher: Times / Avon
Length: 219 pages
Illustrations: black & white photo insert
Quote: “[M]y symptoms may have been due to a lack of vitamins but that this deficiency may have been a problem of absorption.”
Many people think of an “autistic spectrum” on which autism seems to be an exaggeration of a normal personality trait. My best guess is that this will prove to have been misleading; autism has no functional aspects and, when and as it seems to be cured, does not necessarily reveal an artistic or creative personality. Rather, I suspect, autism will prove simply to be a combination of symptoms produced by specific brain injuries, whether the damage was done by unalterable genetic syndromes, by physical injury, or (as in Donna Williams’ case) largely by hereditary sensitivities to foods, drugs, and toxins. Some autistic patients will respond “miraculously,” as Williams does in the course of her memoir, to identifying and removing the allergy/sensitivity triggers; for others, this may not be possible or even relevant. Most autistic patients won’t be curable. Some of those who are will be creative, perceptive introverts; others will be extroverts with no outstanding “gifts.” That’s a guess, for what it’s worth, and Nobody Nowhere is a memoir of autism that supports it.
While autistic, Williams seemed hopelessly incompetent, and one has to wonder how the people she knew ever let her try doing a job or living independently as an adult. Once cured, she’s reasonably intelligent, with massive learning deficits in some areas and moderate, not spectacular, talents in other areas (e.g. writing).
While autistic, she was hypersensitive to sensory stimulation, most of which was painful; she was placed on painkillers as a child (which probably aggravated her symptoms). Once cured, she’s sympathetic to autistic children, but not Highly Sensory-Perceptive. Even while autistic, although she describes perceptions being amplified in intensity, they’re not the unusually acute perceptions of true HSPs; Williams’ earliest memories involve unfocussing her eyes to see dust motes as “stars,” not focussing on finer details at greater distance than an average child.
While autistic, she was aware of other people and felt more interest in making friends than a typical young child, but was often aware of being alienated from people, both by her chronic pain and by her (apparently well conditioned) fear of abuse. Even while autistic, she was able to cultivate a “mask” personality that was shallow, often stupid, often “crazy,” but definitely energetic and outgoing. Once cured, she begins to experience her natural personality as extroverted.
It appears from Williams’ account that when her brain was functioning in a dysfunctional way, the language center was perhaps overstimulated while other parts of the brain were deprived of stimulation. Williams was verbose, even as what she recalls as being a “both autistic and retarded” child who could only babble while struggling to understand enough of the words she was mimicking to communicate. Once cured, this verbosity makes her quite a competent writer...for a “people person” whose main interest is not reading books or writing songs, but talking to people, especially to autistic children. She’s not a poet; she’s a talker who learned that some of her “autistic and retarded” phrasings were perceived by others as “poetic.”
I recommend anything by Donna Williams to American readers because of what I perceive as a dangerous misunderstanding. Here in the U.S. our best known dyslexic author (and behavioral scientist), Temple Grandin, does happen to be HSP. It’s easy for people who (a) aren’t HSP themselves, or (b) are both HSP and hypersensitive due to nerve and/or brain damage, or (c) know someone who is, to confuse healthy HSP “sensitivity” with dysfunctional hypersensitivity. There is in fact a fairly wide gap between the two traits, and Australian-born Donna Williams seems to me to be the best person on Earth to explain exactly what the difference is. 
If you have no really immediate interest in HSP, hypersensitivity, or autism, should you read Nobody Nowhere anyway? Certainly. It’s readable, vivid, entertaining, and it has that feel-good quality that hangs about all true stories of people who’ve overcome disabling diseases.
If you do have an immediate interest in hypersensitivity or autism, you’ve probably already discovered Donna Williams. There is just one caution for readers in this category. For Williams there was a simple cure that brought almost immediate relief from pain and slow steady progress toward normal brain function. For the person you’re concerned about, it’s more likely that there will be a simple cure for later-onset, more superficial hypersensitivity than for lifelong autism, but there’s no guarantee of any relief. A good diet-based treatment is worth trying; it may have a miraculous effect, may bring only partial relief, or may not work for your friend or relative at all.  There is no one specific diet that works even for all autistics who do have food intolerance; the grain-based diet that worked for Williams would not work for a gluten-intolerant autistic patient, and so on...and food-intolerant autistic patients often have food issues more complicated than gluten, lactose, or casein intolerance. All autistic patients and their families can at least try this approach, but only some will see a real cure.

Other Amazon Associates may offer it cheaper, but this is the only site where, if you pay $5 for a copy of Nobody Nowhere (plus $5 for shipping), we send Williams or a charity of her choice $1.