Breaking the Stereotype – A review of In My Words: Stories of an Autistic Boy

I was given a well-liked book, In My Words: Stories of an Autistic Boy, to review. Following 22-year-old Robbie Clark, the book chronicles the growth of an autistic individual from birth at a Baton Rouge hospital to his current life in Huntsville, Alabama.

It’s a short book – 109 pages – with vignettes prefaced by emoticons, a direct summation of Robbie’s book and his life, all dressed up in light blue, with the paradox of the constant emotions that run through Robbie’s days, in a kind of clutter. Featuring a foreword by his father and perspectives from both his parents and sister, Emma, sprinkled throughout the book, it is a pretty good primer on getting into analyzing how autism affects people.

How does autism affect Robbie? He can recite any factoid about the Academy Awards, off the top of his head, and like Owen Suskind, the star of the Academy Award-nominated Life Animated, has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Disney movies. What I’ve gotten from the book, itself, is that Mr. Clark sees these things as parts of his personality, but not exact definitions of his character. Many of the stories point out that, from the beginning, he was more interested in being treated like anyone else, than just as another autistic individual. While he had moments of popularity and love, it wasn’t an easy ride to get from misunderstandings to a point of living freely in the world that he built.

Perhaps my favorite story in the book, “P.E. in School”, relates to the idea that sometimes people may have misconceptions about those with autism. It is a simple story, but one with a good build-up and even a twist to cement the importance of the event. In it, Robbie refuses to attend a gym class, because two boys constantly pick on one of his friends, and while that may be empathetic enough, the story further twists to show that those same boys liked Robbie and would usually pick him for their team.  Clearly, not everyone has a lack of empathy, and Robbie’s story is a great example of this misconception. I remember, years ago, when researching what it was like to have Asperger’s Syndrome that the symptom of “lack of empathy” was something I had seen plenty of times.

While the best option for him would’ve been to show up to class and stand up for his friend to demonstrate greater empathy. How many boys, in the same situation, would’ve demonstrated a commitment, especially given the way autism affects communication? How many would have refused because of loyalty to a friend?

I have two suggestions for the book. First, Robbie did have a few friends, the stories would benefit from having one of his friends describe what it was like to be around him. Second, although unusual for this type of book, I believe it would have been useful to add an index or table of contents, so people could find and reflect on specific vignettes more easily, especially as this is an important collection of short biographical anecdotes.

I did have a short Q&A with the author, who divulged a little about the present and the future. Currently he works with his father, Rob, at The Ledges, a golf facility in Huntsville, and he has recently gone on the road to do speaking engagements with his mother, Maggie. He has been to three speaking engagements so far: Huntsville, Baton Rouge, and Clearwater Beach, Florida, all of which really pleased him. He loved the large audience at the Baton Rouge event, 400 strong. While it was a brief segment, and his debut speech, the audience roared with approval once Robbie and Maggie finished their speech. He also told me that he loved how beautiful Clearwater Beach was.

As far as his job at The Ledges, it is very satisfactory work for Robbie, who has been employed there for almost a decade, longer than anyone else currently on staff.  He has nothing but compliments about his co-workers. He also likes how adaptable they are to his touring schedule.

For Robbie, the gist of his experience with autism is to be thankful for what you have, not for what you haven’t, and to concentrate on whatever drives you, completely to take advantage of your situation.

So there you have it, Robbie is a talented young man with autism. His book is about how he manages to overcome some myths about the disorder. For around $4 for a digital copy, and $15.30 for a hard copy, you can start your journey with Robbie and see where it takes you. It is good to be inspired.

You can purchase In My Words: Stories of an Autistic Boy by Robbie Clark on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble. Best of all, Robbie has confirmed that he has a second book in the works.

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Cinematic Autism

Movies are an essential part of my life as a human being today. Almost everyone, of any age, has an interest in a certain era or certain genre, and film has been long established as an art form that any type of person, from the hipster to the layman, can appreciate. Movies create larger-than-life personalities, introduce people to stories beyond their own, and can create stars through soundtracks and merchandise, too.

Because of its cultural appeal, I am not distant from a love of cinema, but what is even more interesting is that a current film riding high on the box office, The Accountant, deals with an autistic main character and a possible Oscar entry for best documentary. “Life Animated”, is about a boy who finds his and his family’s life changed when he gets regressive autism, which is when a neurotypical kid exhibits autistic symptoms all of a sudden. What better time, than now, to talk about the moving pictures?

My childhood, like many others, was influenced by the Disney movies I saw. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast… those were the movies I got into and one of my favorites was The Lion King. I also absolutely loved Jim Carrey – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective– was my first live-action film, and Carrey was my favorite actor in the 90s. Graduating to more mature films was also quite easy, and eventually I got an appreciation of the film medium as much as any other, the artistry, and the unique genius in the world. Because I’ve always been interested in people, it is a way to understand people’s lives without becoming a voyeur, especially including documentaries.

Through seeing, probably, hundreds and hundreds of films of all kinds, I have movies I would call my favorites. My favorite genre of film has usually been the comedy, with the western almost being tied. In comedies, just being able to laugh in such a stressful situation during life is of high importance. The idea of recreating the freedom, liberation and beauty of a western landscape filled with little communities, and a timeless tale of good vs. evil is what I like about westerns. My favorite film, though, belongs to neither genre, and that is Psycho. Typically, a good horror movie isn’t always about scares, but about creating great characters through the twisting of humanity’s psychosis like Norman Bates or Freddy Krueger, in a way it may be the genre where the villain could matter more than the hero/heroine, almost creating an underdog mythos through a character with very few redeemable qualities. Psycho does all of that, especially with Anthony Perkins giving one of the best performances that I’ve seen in a film through the character of Norman Bates. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors.

So what does this have to do with autism? Autistic individuals are generally into repetition which many films provide in a sometimes clichéd manner. This form of repetition makes it easier for us to understand. If the films aren’t completely adaptable to understanding every social situation, it doesn’t matter due to the visual importance of cinema, but they may still be able to learn important social skills, good and bad unwritten rules and proper behavior due to seeing good and bad examples onscreen. It also doesn’t require a lot of work to utilize, therein poor motor control has nothing to do with being able to enjoy a film.

But what may be the most important thing when it comes to autism and film is that it can allow neurotypicals the ability to understand autism in a way that they couldn’t otherwise, and for those with autism to look at role models, to even see their condition brought to a place from which very few social pillars can reach. Besides the confirmations that Daryl Hannah (Bladerunner) and Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers) are both autistic, there are many, many movies, of many different stripes, that all try to tell their version of the autistic story. Besides Rain Man (which is, probably, where many people first heard about autism), there is a Temple Grandin movie, The Story of Luke. Additional movies include Adam, The Big Short, The Imitation Game, The Social Network, A Beautiful Mind, and the list goes on and on. Particularly notable is the film “Change of Habit”, which was one of the earliest film treatments on the condition, and which stars Elvis Presley in a rare dramatic, and final, role. Due to  the era in which it was issued, its mentality on autism can be seen as very insensitive in light of more contemporary practices and views.

For years, I’ve loved cinema, and it is one of the best ways to bond with other people. You go to a theater, get some popcorn, sit in a nearby seat, watch a movie and you don’t have to worry about any social or communication faux pas as you, and another person, suck in the quality of whatever it is that you watch. Because these films move beyond whatever limitations you think you have, you can then socialize about something related to the subject, almost like you can love the film as if you weren’t autistic at all.

Important Message:

As an organization centered in the U.S., we are taking our time to celebrate one of the most important holidays that our fellow countrymen cherish, Thanksgiving. While being uncommonly filmed, those celebrating the holiday can still watch “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, an excellent Thanksgiving-based comedy that is one of the few films that I’ve watched more than once. Have any other movies you’d recommend?  Share them in the comments below and follow us to stay in conversation. Have a happy Thanksgiving!