Earlier this week I posted an essay by Greg Hollin on changing scientific conceptions of human nature and of the ‘social’, and of the way that autism has become ‘window to the soul’. As a coda here is a review I wrote in 2006 of Michael Blastland’s book Joe, about his autistic son. I am struck by how, having read Greg’s work, I might well ask different questions now of the book, and perhaps even look upon it differently. The review was first published in the London Evening Standard.
Joe is obsessive. He has little understanding of the consequences of his own actions. He has little time for social norms. Aren’t all children like this? Not like Joe they’re not. Take, for instance, his obsession with videos. So fixated is he, that they are banned from his home. So, one day, seeing a TV through the open front door of the house opposite, Joe, dressed only in his underpants, runs out of his house and makes a beeline across the busy road outside. Even being hit by an oncoming car and somersaulting over its bonnet does not divert him from his mission. He just picks himself up, dusts himself down, carries on across the road and into the house opposite, to sit gaping at the TV.
Joe is autistic. And Michael Blastland is Joe’s father. In Joe, he uses his relationship with his son to try to answer a question that has obviously been tugging at him ever since Joe’s condition became apparent: What does Joe’s strangeness tell us about what it is to be human? And to answer that question Blastland draws upon the latest research in developmental psychology, neurology and evolutionary biology.
There is also a deeper and darker question that Blastland wants to pose: given the strangeness of Joe’s behaviour, just how human is he? It might seem heartless for a father even to ask that question of his child, but it is Blastland’s courage in pursuing it that makes for such an engaging book.
Blastland uses a series of vignettes of Joe’s behaviour to highlight both his condition and the human condition. Once, taking Joe to a DIY shop, Blastland discovers in horror that Joe had peed into a display toilet. There was, however, no way of explaining to Joe why this behaviour was unacceptable. Paradoxically this is not because Joe cannot understand reality but because he cannot understand fantasy. For Joe, it ‘looks like a toilet, feels like a toilet, therefore is a toilet’. Most of us distort reality in our minds to understand it better. Most of us can imagine how things might be if we pursued a different course of action, or how others might feel if we behaved in a particular way. This, Blastland points out, is key to being able to follow social rules. We don’t walk naked in the street or pee in a display toilet because we can imagine what others might think. Joe can’t. He can’t even imagine that others think. ‘How peculiar’, Blastland observes, ‘that in forsaking fantasy for reality, he becomes stranger’.
In another incident, Joe peers into a pram in which a child is crying. Suddenly he thumps the baby as hard as he can. Luckily, his aim is not very good and little damage is done. But how can Blastland explain to Joe why it was wrong to hit a child? He can’t, because Joe has no awareness of the consequences of his actions. This leads Blastland to a discussion of the importance self-consciousness to human morality. Only when we have learnt ‘to regard our thoughts and emotions from a distance’, he writes, can ‘we learn to observe ourselves instead of only to inhabit the thought of the moment’.
There is a wide spectrum of behaviours and abilities encompassed by the category ‘autistic’. Joe is at the very edge of the spectrum. If we accept that humanity is defined not simply by our physical form but also by what goes on inside our heads, then, Blastland writes, ‘I’m forced to the grim conclusion: Joe does not qualify’.
But Blastland, of course, will not accept that conclusion. And not just because he is Joe’s father. His head as well as his heart tells him that however strange Joe may appear, he is still human.
For some contemporary thinkers, especially utilitarians such as Peter Singer, ‘humanity’ is not a particularly useful label. What matters in thinking about moral boundaries is not so much whether you are a human or a chimpanzee or a pig, but the cognitive abilities that you possess. The rights of a being, and our moral duties towards that being, is defined primarily by its cognitive abilities. A chimpanzee has the intellectual ability of three year-old-child, and so the moral status of a three-year-old child. From such a perspective Joe’s moral status might appear to be precarious.
Blastland rejects such a perspective. The concept of humanity is important for him. He recognizes, however, that humanity is not invested in a single person. It is a collective label, describing the existence of humans as social beings. We exist only in relation to others, and it is in relation to others that we make sense of every individual’s humanity. Joe might think that he is ‘the only boy in the world’. But we know he isn’t. Joe is human because the notion of humanity would become meaningless if did not extend it to Joe, too. It is not that Joe’s condition provides a window into what it is to be human. It is rather that what it is to be human becomes hollowed out if our humanity – in every sense of the word – does not stretch to Joe.
The painting is ‘Air+Man+Space’ by Lyubov Popova.