4 out of 5 stars
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The present month, May, is mental health awareness month: an apt time to raise the profile of psychiatric disorders. One expression that may be used too casually by lay people, perhaps even for self-diagnosis, is "on the spectrum".
They mean the autism spectrum, of course. The non-fiction work Deciphering Autism by Robert Michael DePaolo takes a comprehensive look at the condition, attaching weight to core characteristics. Though accepting that there is variation among autistic persons, the author argues that a definition so broad as to include near-normal (high functioning) individuals makes research into the causes of autism more difficult. With a focus on individuals with measurable language deficits and apparent social detachment, he explores how differences in the structure and function of autistic brains might produce those symptoms.
Noting that different parts of the brain act in concert, DePaolo posits that more linear processing and poor orchestration in an autistic brain may be at the root of language and other difficulties. Such processing may drain a lot of energy, and the resulting fatigue may underlie autistic persons' reluctance to engage socially. With experience both as a parent of autistic children and as the director of neurobehavioural units, DePaolo is an expert in this field.
I therefore appreciated how well-informed his ideas were. Taking stock of both classic and newer research and adding some innovative perspectives of his own, he set out approaches to autism. He shed light on mistakes to avoid when educating autistic individuals. He also speculated on the causes of autism and suggested yet unexplored avenues of enquiry. His discussions were far-reaching, encompassing many areas of child development, behaviourism, neurology, biology and physics, and even the order of the universe. The writing included specialized terms and sometimes became abstract. Although the author tempered this with everyday examples, the scientific arguments needed close concentration. Some diagrams both to break up the text and illustrate various mechanisms would have been helpful. Since many chapters discussed and developed theories, dividing the text into sections with sub-headings would have provided orientation.
The lack of diagrams and sub-headings did not present a severe problem, as the writing was clear overall. However, perhaps because of a conversion process, the PDF text I read contained frequent errors such as missing words and punctuation. These were distracting at times, and in that connection I rate this book four out of five stars.
I wouldn't rate it any lower because this work represents a fascinating and scholarly contribution to the body of knowledge about autism. It is also practical because DePaolo uses his understanding of autistic mental processes to provide tips on how to support individuals. It was inspiring to read about an approach rooted in empathy. For example, having explained the pitfalls of a dentist's visit, he suggests a way to make it bearable. On the theoretical side, he argues his points cogently and includes full references. The bibliography provides further reading on the fascinating subjects of brain function and behaviour.
With more of a focus on scientific explanations like those afforded by this book, we can hope for a better understanding of disorders like autism, including exciting pointers for further research, in mental health awareness month and beyond.
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