Book Review Aug 10, 2018

Book Review: Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism

If you have a child with autism like I do, you’ve probably devoured stacks of books on the subject. Videos, articles, seminars, podcasts—you’re on your way to becoming a self-taught expert if you’re not already there. You probably have a few super-powers up your sleeve by now, too, like dismissing judgmental stranger-stares, discarding unwanted advice, and controlling your emotions. You can most likely dip in and out of your feelings like an Olympic gymnast on rings.

Our families may look like anyone else’s, but we live in a world where the simplest tasks are Herculean and ordinary activities are surrounded by emotional quicksand. What’s more, here in America, our culture is obsessed with achievement and success, and the pathway to that success is almost universally narrow, involving years and years of structured classroom work in an artificial and complex social setting. Add to that the social expectations of the workplace and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps national narrative, and as a person with autism or a loved one of someone with autism, once the school years begin, you quickly find yourself living with the cumulative effect of a thousand daily defeats.

I found Uniquely Human by Dr. Barry Prizant to be the rare book about autism that helped lift the weight of my anxiety, counterbalancing fear with the forces of understanding, insight, and encouragement—all powerful and underrated forces, might I add.

Dr. Prizant’s career spans 40 years and varied professional environments, including universities, hospitals, schools, and private practice. His view of autism is practical and realistic yet filtered through a lens of optimism and compassion, which seems to emerge naturally from his personal inclinations combined with decades spent immersed in an autism-colored world. It’s clear that Prizant has observed and listened deeply to those under his care, seeking to learn as well as teach, and it’s from the humble posture of a student that he offers, what to me, is a new level of wisdom that actually helps.

The work is divided into two halves: Understanding Autism and Living with Autism.

In the first half, Prizant serves as a tour guide of sorts, walking the reader through the interior world of the autistic mind, piecing together a composite from thousands of interactions with clients, friends, and family members touched by the condition. He provides a new lens through which we can see “autistic behaviors,” reframing them as intelligent coping strategies rather than problematic behaviors. He teaches us to ask why, to listen, and to think of “obsessions” as “enthusiasms.” The underlying cognition he continually encourages is to stop looking at behaviors and look through them to understand the strategy they offer. The “autistic behavior” isn’t the problem, Prizant insists. The behavior is a strategy for dealing with an underlying issue. If you try to stop the behavior, not only are you failing to solve the problem, you’re also taking away a coping strategy.

Prizant also examines the roles that trust, fear, and control play in the mind of a person with autism. Every principle he asserts bears weight in my personal experience. Our son needs a lot control over his environment to cope with the anxiety he experiences, and once I disposed of the misguided idea that in order to be a good parent I needed to keep a tight-fisted reign on him, I began to give him as much control as I could while still holding the boundaries for physical and social safety. The result was almost immediate. His acting out lessened. His trust in me grew. And that growing trust has become the sturdy foundation for all the other steps we’re still trying to climb. This understanding was hard-won and required throwing out what others thought and much of what I had been taught, and embracing intense humility, accepting that my son understood more than I did about what he needed. I wish I could’ve read Uniquely Human years ago; perhaps I could’ve learned the lesson sooner and saved us all a lot of tears.

The rest of the book looks at, among other things, social understanding, navigating relationships with schools and professionals, and learning to trust that parents are the experts. His sub-chapters have scannable titles like “Trust Your Gut, Follow Your Instinct,” “Find Community,” “Have Faith,” “Pick Your Battles,” and “See the Cup as Half Full.” Sometimes I think my optimism borders on denial, but optimism and hope can be vital survival skills in this mission, and Dr. Prizant encourages both fiercely.

Finally, I have to commend Tom Fields-Meyer for an easy-to-read, well-written work that makes Dr. Prizant’s complex insight simple and digestible. I also want to mention Trish Todd from Simon & Schuster whose editorial expertise shines through in this book. Beautifully done.

I think it’s fitting to conclude my review of Uniquely Human with Dr. Prizant’s opening dedication. I find it encapsulates the walk-away message of the whole work, and in a sense, says it all: “To all individuals with autism and their families, in the hope that this book will help them gain what they so deserve: understanding and respect.”