Autism is a very hard disease to understand. It affects people in different ways. Authors like Oliver Sacks and Mark Haddon explain the difficulties of living with Autism. By observing Temple Grandin, a highly acclaimed scientist, writer, and autistic, Sacks explores an Autistic’s difficulties, focusing on her social handicaps. Haddon explores the same difficulties but does so through the eyes of his fictional character Christopher Boone. Some people feel that Sacks’ essay presents Temple Grandin in a way that “invites its audience to gawk at human oddities” but I see his observations as his way of understanding Autism (Couser 2). Oliver Sacks’ essay “An Anthropologist on Mars” explains Autism from a scientific perspective, which can seem distant, while Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a more effective portrayal of Autism by using the first person through the perspective of the main character.
Some feel that Oliver Sacks’ essay only points out Temple Grandin’s abnormalities and presents her as a scientific study but, he observes her in a scientific way to understand Autism more thoroughly. When Sacks walked in her office, she did not offer him coffee. Nor when he asked for it did she apologize for not offering him any. After, Temple introduced Sacks to the secretaries in her office in “a somewhat brusque manner” (257). It seemed to Sacks as if she had “learned, roughly ‘how to behave’ in such situations without having such personal perception of how other people felt” (257). In describing both situations, Sacks does not make fun of her, or point out her lack of social skills in a condescending manner. He simply mentions that she did not read normal social cues. His word choice does not imply a condescending attitude. In his essay, “The Cases of Oliver Sacks: The Ethics of Neuroanthropology”, Thomas Couser acknowledges that some critics feel that Sacks “invites its audience to gawk at human oddities” (2). However, Sacks’ does not have a condescending tone that would imply a “freak show.” He is simply telling his story of meeting Temple Grandin and giving his audience an understanding of her disease.
Also by observing her actions, Sacks addresses the effects of Autism on Temple’s biological processes which helps broaden his understanding of the disease. When first meeting Temple, he observed the “clumsy” way she walked, attributing her unbalanced manner to her “impaired development of the vestibular system and part of the cerebellum” (256). By scientifically explaining the ways she walks, it demonstrates that he wants to understand the foundations of the disease. Sacks and Temple also discuss how her Amygdala and Hippocampus do not work properly (287). Sacks felt it was important for his readers to understand how Temple’s brain works. As Thomas Couser points out, Sacks is making “illustrations of how the human mind works” (5). Sacks is trying to explain how the Autistic mind works.
In addition to mentioning the inner workings of temple’s brain, Sacks addresses the social aspects of Autism by rejecting common stereotypes. When Temple was trying to give Sacks directions, she used a Taco Bell as a landmark. She told Sacks that it had been redone and now looked more like a “cottage and no longer looked in the least ‘bellish’” (256). Sacks was astonished at her humor because autistic people are said to be “humorless [and] unimaginative” (256). Later, at the slaughterhouse, Temple sneaked Sacks into the plant by having him wear sanitary engineer’s uniform. Sack was surprised at this because it is the common belief that Autistic people “have no pretend-play” (278). In both instances, Sacks rejected society’s common belief about Autism and proved Temple’s normalcy, even though she has a disease that many consider abnormal.
Because Sacks acknowledges her strengths, it shows he is not trying to show she is a freak, but that she is human. She is now able to talk to an audience while facing them and can spend time with two to three friends at once (275). He mentions her success in creating new chute designs and how she has a great ability to concentrate and focus (277, 279). His recognition of her strengths demonstrates his respect for her and that he does not see her as a freak. At the end of the essay, when he left her, “[he] hugged her- and [he thought] she hugged [him] back” (Sacks 296). Acknowledging her progress illustrates that he appreciates her, rather than seeing her as something less than human. He does not look down upon her because of her disease but sees her as an equal.
Despite Sacks’ strong essay, Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident to a Dog in the Night Time is a better portrayal of Autism because of his use of the first person, which gives the reader a much stronger insight into how an Autistic mind works. For example, when Christopher’s father tells him not to go into other people’s business he says he will not follow that because he does not always listen to other’s people’s rules, as they are never specific. “For example, people often say ‘be quiet’, but they don’t tell you how long to be quiet for” (29). Because this is Christopher’s thought, it is easy to understand his literal and logical thought process. Multiple times Haddon also uses diagrams and visuals to show how Christopher thinks. When Christopher is walking to the train station in Swindon, Christopher makes a map in his head of the area, which Haddon includes (140). Unlike Haddon’s essay, Sacks describes Temple, which forces the reader to interpret exactly what Sacks means. For example, Sacks described Temple’s squeeze machine: “the device had two heavy, slanting wooden sides, perhaps four by three feet each, pleasantly upholstered with a thick, soft padding” (262). Sacks uses words to describe her machine, which forces the reader to create their on mental image based on their interpretation, while Haddon would have included a picture, which gives the reader a clear insight into what Christopher was thinking. It provides a window for the reader to understand Christopher’s thought process.
With the first person narration from the perspective of the main character, Haddon further demonstrates how an Autistic mind words by including many details, which is more effective than Sacks’ first person narration from a secondary perspective. When Christopher is in London, he describes the train station:
“And then I was in a smaller room underground and there were lots of people and there were pillars which had blue light in the ground around the bottom if them and I liked these but I didn’t like the people, so I saw a photo booth like one I went into on 25 March 1994 to have my passport photo done, and I went into the photo booth because it was like a cupboard and it felt safer and I could look out through the curtain (172).”
In contrast, Sacks describes how Temple rambled and used a great deal of detail: “a sentence, a paragraph, once started, had to be completed; nothing was left implicit, hanging in the air”(257). Both Christopher and Temple explain things vividly however Haddon’s presentation is much more successful. The reader first handedly experiences the “unstoppable impetus and fixity” that Sacks describes rather than just reading an outside perspective (257). It’s a classic example of the “show me don’t tell me” that English teachers so often emphasize to their students.
Mark Haddon’s first person narration also presents an Autistic’s memory in a more relevant and relatable way than Oliver Sacks’ presentation. Both Christopher and Temple say that they can rewind and fast-forward their memory as they wish. Christopher compares his memory more to that of a “DVD player because [he does not have to] rewind through everything” (76). Temple describes her memory has a “CD-ROM in a computer” or a “quick-access videotape” (282). The two comparisons are similar however, more people can better relate to Christopher’s metaphor. More readers understand how a DVD player works rather than a CD-ROM. Also, future audiences will better understand Christopher’s parallel to a DVD player rather than Temple’s because videotapes are already dated. CD-ROM’s are still used but DVD’s are much more common and relate better to a wider audience. Haddon’s analogy is more effective.
Both Temple and Christopher do not like physical contact, however by allowing the reader to experience a moment between Christopher and his father, Haddon’s presentation is better, unlike Sacks’ essay where the reader is told about Temple’s dislike for physical contact. For example, when Christopher is in the police station, his father spread his “fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other”. They do this because his father wants to hug him but because Christopher does not like hugging. This is their way of saying “I love you” (16). In that moment, the reader feels the love that Christopher’s father is trying to show him. Readers gain a more full understanding of the love that his father is showing him because they experience first hand that moment of love. Temple’s alternative expression of affection is through her hug machine, which has “two, heavy, slanting wooden sides”. After turning the compressor on, “it exerts a firm but comfortable pressure on the body” (263). Sacks description is very scientific and bland in comparison to Haddon’s emotional father-son moment, that most readers can relate to. Sacks explanation is a “verbal” testimony of Autism, as opposed to the emotional testimony Haddon offers (Couser 5). Readers cannot relate to a hug machine, but Haddon relates to a larger audience by creating an emotional moment.
Sacks and Haddon offer two different perspectives on Autism, Haddon from the first person main character and Sacks’ from the first person peripheral perspective but both show that general stereotypes are not always correct. The two different presentations offer different ideas. Sacks’ view shows the scientific perspective but does not in a non-condescending manner. His peripheral view does not give full insight as effectively as Haddon’s first person main character perspective. Despite their differences, both works show that Autism is a misunderstood disease and the accepted thought about Autism are not always true.
Couser, Thomas. "The Case of Oliver Sacks: The Ethics of Neuroanthropology."
Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-time. New York: Vintage, 2004.
Oliver Sacks “An Anthropologist on Mars.” An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Vintage, 1996.