Paul Issacs: Living Through the Haze

During my Christmas vacation I had the opportunity to catch up on my reading. One of the books that I wanted to read was “Living Through the Haze” by Paul Isaacs. I have heard many nice things about Paul through a mutual friend Dr. Olga Bogdashina. Paul has been an inspirational speaker at autism related events in the United Kingdom using his own life events as a way of teaching others about autism spectrum disorders.It was the logical next step to put his experiences in book format and reach a larger audience.

Given Paul’s problems with sensory perception and integration, the title is quite appropriate. “Living through the Haze” captures the feeling of confusion he had in not being able to fully understand the world around him. Temple Grandin has stated that if given money she would invest the same in sensory related research. This is the aspect of autism (possibly along with mood disorders) that has incapacitated her and Paul the most.

The book itself reminds me a little bit of “Through the Eyes of Aliens” by Jasmine O’Neill. Both Jasmine and Paul provide a no holds barred account of autism on a first person basis emphasizing the cruel treatment they received in a public school setting and the liberating experience they felt when receiving a diagnosis. The book itself, also like “Through the Eyes of Aliens”, seems written completely by Paul. There is no professional editing or embellishments of storylines resulting in a succinct account a little over 100 pages long. Interspersed along many paragraphs are humorous quips, which reflect on the author’s optimism in the midst of negative events transpiring in his surroundings.

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Paul’s family history is similar to that of Jack Robison (Raising Cubby) as multiple people seemingly exhibit peculiarities of the autism spectrum across numerous generations. John Robison has suggested that the personality quirks of ASD are best accepted by other individuals within the spectrum. This may lead to couples with ASD getting married, a concept that may have been foreign to many people a couple of decades ago.

Paul’s father received his diagnosis at the age of 49, and his mother received hers at the age of 47. The late diagnoses reminds us of how little was know about the condition in the 1960’s. Given all of the publicity in the layman press on autism spectrum disorders we expect more from today’s physicians and from our ongoing public school screenings. It is therefore surprising to me that Paul had a clear understanding that he was different at age 16, but received his diagnosis, amidst a classic history of autism, at the age of 24.

Paul was the product of a premature delivery and was considered a very small baby when born. Some physicians would consider the fact that he is left handed a possible sign of brain damage from his premature delivery. As other autistic individuals, Paul had delayed language acquisition, an atrocious handwriting, and a possible learning deficit. The commonality of all of his signs and symptoms is what both Paul and Donna Williams call a “fruit salad”.

Paul’s experiences with sensory integration closely relate to the thoughts expressed by Dr. Olga Bogdashina. In this regard Olga has described the fragmented vision of autistic individuals as “seeing in bits”. In research circles this may be due to abnormalities in how the brain “binds” together information (see http://bit.ly/1dz0oKK ). Paul uses this concept as an explanation as to how he finds it difficult to connect different sensory aspects of an experience together. The idea is similar to the concept of monotropism (an attention tunnel) espoused by Murray, Lesser and Lawson. The severity of monotropism may vary according to the particular environment at any given instant. As Paul eloquently states, “Social and communication skills impairment in autism impact on the individual’s ability to remain focused work in the light of the emotional “background noise” present in the daily life of neurotypical adolescents”.

I would say that the most prominent lesson to learn from Paul’s life are the deleterious effects of bullying which happens in the community, school and/or workplace. Bullying leads to low self-esteem, and avoidance of social interactions. It procreates self-recrimination: why is this happening, am I a bad person? In Paul’s case bullying was at the heart of a disabling mixed mood disorder (both anxiety and depression) with somatization (stomach pains). Bullying is a major problem in ASD which appears exacerbated by the individual’s inability to convey what is happening to the responsible authorities. Bullying is not only physical but also psychological. Snide remarks about a person’s capacity, mental prowess, or future potential should be considered as bullying.

Paul is now a productive member of society. His main focus has been on helping others within the spectrum. Over the years he has become a polished autism speaker, trainer and author working at Autism Oxford. His major message for autistic individuals and their parents is that mental health is just as important as physical health. Among other distinctions Paul is a founding member of the International Autism institute.