Autism aware­ness is all very well, but the real point of this book is to make Chee­rios avail­able at Dis­ney World

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

his pre­cise knowl­edge of the sub­ways, his affin­ity for cud­dles. As a re­sult, the book is less about de­con­tex­tu­alised science than it is about in­ti­macy. Chances are you, too, would much rather hear about Gus’s be­fud­dled re­ac­tion to Si­mon Says than his mir­ror neu­rons.

An ex­em­plary chap­ter, on trav­el­ling with Gus, punc­tu­ates ab­surd com­edy with thought­ful melan­choly. New­man ex­plains that her son gets home­sick not for peo­ple, but for things: snow globes and model trains, bed­room cur­tains and Dis­ney para­pher­na­lia. She en­tices him to leave for a fam­ily trip to Or­lando by send­ing him an email pre­tend­ing to be Dis­ney’s Malef­i­cent. “Dear Gus,” she writes in her fake per­sona, “Why don’t you and your mother drop by Dis­ney World?” (“In my haste to write this email,” New­man ad­mits, “I ac­tu­ally wrote, ‘Why don’t you and your mother drop by Is­rael?’”) They make it to Or­lando, but the vil­lains aren’t around. New­man ar­ranges for her son to at­tend a Cin­derella break­fast, in hope that one of the evil step­sis­ters might be there. The step­sis­ters are, but Gus’s pre­ferred ce­real is not. So it goes.

New­man’s nar­ra­tive works on sev­eral lev­els. The point of the Or­lando anec­dote, for those read­ers churn­ing through the book for help­ful nuggets, is that chil­dren with autism may re­late more eas­ily to the emo­tions ren­dered so broadly by vil­lains. But its strength lies in its full de­pic­tion of fam­ily life, and in New­man’s dry hu­mour.

“Autism aware­ness is all very well,” she con­cludes, “but the real point of this book is to make Chee­rios avail­able at Dis­ney World.”

That hu­mour helps to main­tain a bal­ance. The mem­oir is never over-sen­ti­men­tal, but it is some­times very sad, and New­man is un­afraid to de­pict her­self in an un­flat­ter­ing light, in all the hard­est ways — not just in the eas­ily shock­ing mo­ments, but in morally dif­fi­cult think­ing, as when she con­sid­ers what will hap­pen to Gus in sex­ual ma­tu­rity. Gus was 14 when New­man was writ­ing the book. “It is very hard to say this out loud,” New­man writes. “Let me try. I do not want Gus to have chil­dren. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I want. Don’t I?”

New­man is proud that her son is a col­lec­tor of noises, able to recog­nise the pitches of in­di­vid­ual am­bu­lances sight un­seen. But she also knows that his tal­ents, the­o­ret­i­cally a point of con­nec­tion, can iso­late him in prac­tice. Gus may have per­fect pitch, but he spends his choir time in a corner mak­ing train noises. En­ter Siri. The voice-recog­ni­tion soft­ware per­forms a wealth of func­tions for the autis­tic com­mu­nity: con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, babysit­ter and elo­cu­tion trainer. Like Dis­ney an­i­ma­tions, Siri pro­vides a com­fort­ing com­mer­cial same­ness. She has en­abled Gus to have real, sus­tained con­ver­sa­tions, al­beit ones about tur­tles.

To Siri with Love is above all a close and wise por­trait, New­man’s love let­ter not to tech­nol­ogy but to her son. New­man has mixed feel­ings about Gus’s de­pen­dency on cor­po­rate prod­ucts — the height­ened schmaltz of car­toon emo­tions, the un­real uni­verse of screens and canned voices. But she has noth­ing but deep, wide love for Gus.

“The screens may not be real life,” New­man con­cludes. “But just maybe they are pro­vid­ing scaf­fold­ing to help him cre­ate that life.”

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