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Vine Stylesheet

A Response to

Songs of the Gorilla Nation

I've just finished a great book called Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism by Dawn Prince-Hughes. It is a moving book offering excellent insight not only into the world of autism but also the world of gorillas.

Dawn is a woman born in 1964 who was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome when she was 35. This is the same autistic disorder that the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time had, and while I could see the similarities between the two, it was also interesting to note the different ways the disorder played out in her.

It is quite a remarkable story. Dawn was always an eccentric person. Not knowing what was "wrong" with her, she was labeled as just plain weird. Her life chronicles offer an extremely interesting window into what life for an autistic person is like. She was, of course, a difficult child to raise because of her distance and quirks, and when she entered school, her oddities made life even more difficult. School and life in general became a nightmare. Most teachers had no understanding or empathy for her; they made her life more miserable. Her Grade 3 teacher would punish her with more math (which was not her strength) and would scream at her in the hallway. There was one bright light in Grade 5 with a teacher who seemed to understand her and make allowances for her learning style. As well, her grandparents seemed to offer her stability.

By the time she reached junior high, peers began to torment her and the reader suffers along with her. She was singled out continually for ridicule. At one point someone made a cardboard sign for her to hang around her neck with a derogatory word on it. She writes: "I didn't take it off. I walked around with it on because they had no power over me. To me, the words that people shouted at me, their thoughts about me being crazy, the ways they treated me, were all as real as the sign, and I couldn't take them off."

At 16 she decided to leave school and for several years became a homeless person, depending on the kindness of strangers, drinking and doing drugs. Then she landed a job as an erotic dancer, and developed a gorilla-like act, even dressing in a jungle costume. During these years, no longer homeless but still lost, she went to the zoo for an afternoon and sat down for a rest near the gorilla cage. She had closed her eyes and when she opened them, she saw a gorilla for the first time, and her life changed. She began to come to the zoo as often as she could and would sit by the gorillas for hours at a time. She eventually got her masters degree in gorilla studies and is currently a world leader in the quest to save gorillas from extinction. She also got her Ph.D. in philosophy. (As odd as her erotic dancer job was, her employer strongly encouraged the women to get an education, lucky for her.)

She says that the gorillas led her on the path towards her healing, not of Aspergers, but of the lack of understanding that had made her become so lost. Her study of and communion with the gorillas helped her to begin to deal with her own unique personality. The gorillas, themselves in an unnatural cage, offered her acceptance and friendship which she found incredibly healing. Where the world judged her severely for not being "normal", the gorillas allowed her just to be silent and in community with them. Where she had been unable to connect with people, she made connections with the primates. And she identified with their plight because she too was misunderstood like them.

My understanding of autism deepened because of her courageous sharing of self-discovery. Autism is perhaps best described as an overloading of the senses. Most people have filters that block out unnecessary information. Autistic people don't have that, and because she was constantly bombarded with sensory overload, she withdrew into a world of control. Many people think that autistic people don't have emotions, empathy or humour, but this is far from the truth. They have a flat affect, don't smile, and are distant not because this is innate, but because they are merely trying to cope with their sensory overload. Dawn, for instance, had to learn simple things like when to smile at appropriate times.

The acceptance of the gorillas gave her the courage to find herself. One gorilla in particular became a good friend. Congo had spent most of his life in a tiny concrete cage, but spent his last years in a much better zoo habitat. She said that despite his hard life, he innately was a very kind and loving gorilla. (She actually calls gorillas "people", which is a whole other discussion! She believes they are still evolving and are learning speech. Did you know that one form of primates actually speaks English?!) The middle name she gave her son was after Congo, a gaelic word meaning "heart of the wild one".

I would recommend this book to anyone who works with people or is interested in psychology, anthropology or animals. As I was reading it, I realized in a deeper way that I need to treat my students with more understanding. Someone displaying odd characteristics might not be so much in need of conformity to "normality" as much as in need of empathy and deeper understanding. Many of the difficulties Dawn experienced in her early life could have been prevented or made easier with understanding and proper diagnosis.

Dawn herself perhaps wouldn't have used the word God, but I think this is a remarkable story of God finding someone who was utterly lost. The world is better off with her contributions.

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