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Friday, April 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Send In the Idiots": Bonded by autism — a class reunion

Special to The Seattle Times

"Send In the Idiots: Stories From the Other Side of Autism"
by Kamran Nazeer
Bloomsbury, 230 pp., $23.95

As a child, author Kamran Nazeer sat only on the white stripe of the rug in his classroom, while one of his classmates routinely interrupted the teacher with chants of, "Send in the idiots." Diagnosed with autism at age 4, Nazeer attended a private school in New York City, which specialized in cutting-edge education for autistic children.

In "Send In the Idiots," Nazeer (now a public policy adviser in the British government), tracks down and visits four of his classmates to explore their present lives. "We are expected to be inept in social settings or with other people's feelings. We are expected to be brilliant with figures, or computer programs, or abstract ideas," Nazeer writes. "What I've found, in each case, has been something rather different."

We meet André, a competent computer researcher in Boston, who mediates his difficulty with emotionally tough conversations by speaking through handmade puppets. In the apartment he shares with his sister Amanda hangs a large poster quoting the diagnostic criteria of autism from a medical manual. "Why leave people to guess whether I am autistic or not?" he points out through his puppet named Ben-Gurion. His conversational aids seem to work well, except when someone interrupts a puppet, which sends André into sulking or tantrum episodes, including one where he locks Nazeer in a bathroom for his breach of puppet etiquette.

Randall is a bike courier who lives with his boyfriend in Chicago. He rides his bike to work with his eyes closed, navigating by the sound of turning cars. He writes poetry in his free time. Randall feels patronized in his relationship with his partner Mike and is annoyed when Mike sends his poetry to an autism journal. The relationship dissolves when Mike, assuming that Randall won't notice the obvious evidence of his infidelity, has an affair.

Nazeer catches up with Craig, the pupil whose classroom chant provided the title of this book, during a job interview in New York. Craig's career as a speechwriter began when he was named high-school valedictorian and wrote the commencement address — but was too shy to deliver it. A freelance speechwriter for the Democratic party, Craig lives alone, socializes and travels, but avoids eye contact. When staying away from home, he must rearrange at least one set of items, such as alphabetizing books on a coffee table, to introduce some personal coherence in his universe.

Finally, Nazeer visits the parents of another classmate, Elizabeth, who committed suicide in 2002. Explaining his interest in her story, he writes, "I was in danger of turning her into an emblem of autistic misery, of making her stand for all those whom I didn't get to talk to and whose trouble I had to imagine ... of sticking all those arrows in her flesh." Elizabeth was a talented piano player who briefly taught lessons, but who found routine life, like navigating the local bus route, almost impossible.

Struck with epilepsy, temper outbursts and deep depression, a teenage Elizabeth briefly moved to a residential clinic. After two years she returned home, gradually retreated completely, overdosed on her medications and drowned herself in the family pool.

"Send In the Idiots" is an earnest attempt to illuminate and educate, written with candor and moments of unapologetic wit. "Striking up conversations is an autistic person's version of extreme sports," Nazeer notes. His writing occasionally drifts into tangential discussions of topics ranging from the meaning of genius (relevant) to the politics of the Bush-Kerry presidential campaign (distracting). Yet Nazeer succeeds in supporting his argument against "mind blindness," the frequent assumption that people with autism lack any insight into the minds of other people. Using his elite credentials, Nazeer interweaves his own story with his classmates' to give insight into the autistic mind.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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