I finished reading The Autistic Buddha by Thomas Clements. It is a short book (204 pages) published by Your Stories Matter in England. The paperback edition can be bought from Amazon for the bargain price of $9.50. The book provides an autobiographical account of the authors’ tribulations during his academic career and his occasional trips to China. The prose is artistic and comes from a well-read young man who paints his experiences from the perspective of an anglophile.
Thomas is an autistic individual raised by a loving and supportive family. His brother, himself autistic, does not play a major role in the narrative. The timeline of the book reminds me a little bit of Emergence by Temple Grandin: a youth describing himself as an “otherness” within this world (an anthropologist on Mars?) whose later chapters in life are devoted to spirituality. The story with Thomas picks up in college when he had a mental breakdown as a result of emotional burnout. His stay in a foreign city devoid of his customary social support network fostered the nidus of depression. As a result, Thomas dissociated himself from his immediate environment (derealization) and was no longer able to cope with life on a day-by-day basis. This led to his voluntarily commitment in a psychiatric ward. Unfortunately for Thomas, as his mental fog became thicker the pharmacopeia of drugs provided more side effects than benefits.
The Autistic Buddha is a cautionary tale that underlines some of the absurdities of mental health care. Indeed, several decades ago, institutionalization was the de facto choice for taking care of autistic individuals. In his writings Kanner admonished that the mind-numbing routine environment found in a mental ward promoted the atrophy of social skills while increasing maladaptive behaviors. The resulting behaviors of institutionalized individuals melted into a common amalgam which made any initial psychiatric diagnosis superfluous. Not surprisingly, children who have survived destitute institutional environments themselves acquire autistic symptoms (see previous blog: institutional autism and child abandonment).
In the case of Thomas, establishing a friendship within the psychiatric ward proved to be the best therapy. Outside of the hospital, Thomas found solace in talking himself out of depression as he introspected the plight of others and practiced altruism as the communal currency of humanity. The book itself challenges academic beliefs of Theory of Mind in autism as Thomas readily acknowledges the beliefs and desires of those around him. Contrary to the normative perspective brought about by Neurodiversity, the story expands on the darker side of autism by pinpointing many of the limitations that the author had to overcome. In the end, the narrative recalls us of Kibler-Ross as Thomas pursues a grief pathway that propelled him from resignation into acceptance. Indeed, autism prompts individuals to take the road less traveled instead of the well-beaten path. Thomas decisions in life, could be characterized as harsh but fearless. Ultimately, he keeps moving forward through his (mis)adventures in college, tests to his sexuality, job experiences, and his commitment to a set of beliefs higher than himself. Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I highly recommend the book and wish Thomas well on his travel along the Silk Road. I wait to see what unfolds in the next chapter of his life.
Those interested in The Autistic Buddha may find appetizing reading in The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks. The book details the experience of the author under 2 different systems of mental health care: one emphasizing talking therapy (England) and the other emphasizing psychoactive drugs (United States). The title of the book aptly describes the feeling of derealization during the active phase of the author’s schizophrenia.
Another good read is Dasha’s Journal: A cat reflects on life, catness, and autism written by an autism expert (and parent of an autistic individual) under a nom de plume.