Gorillas and autism. The two topics don't immediately seem to go to together. But then, most people have preconceived ideas about both: hostile King Kongs and children who can't be brought into human communication by any means. Dawn Prince-Hughes' book Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism dispels both stereotypes.
OK, so I'd read enough animal books to know that gorillas are not all that violent -- nothing compared to humans! And I was familiar with the idea that what most people think of as "autism" (specifically identified as Kanner's Syndrome) is just the far end of a spectrum with "normal" at its near end, with some of the middle areas identified by such names as "Asperger's Syndrome." That middle ground is "characterized by difficulties in processing stimuli, sensory oversensitivities, and challenges in social interaction." And who hasn't encountered those things some of the time? The author describes rituals from her childhood: "I also wanted to keep as many of my own accoutrements as possible the same. This meant that I did not want a new toothbrush, new clothes, new shoes. I continued to drink out of my favorite blue baby bottle until I was almost four, when it was replaced with a deep violet tumbler made of aluminum. I wanted to drink only root beer at that point . . ." I don't think this will sound particularly unusual to a lot of parents -- the concept of "security blankets" spread from the Peanuts comic strip because being attached to an object is common among kids -- and even adults; I'm reminded of the movie Pulp Fiction and its character Butch who risks his life to go back for a family heirloom, the watch owned by four generations. An incredible number of the traits the author describes from herself can be found in people who would never be considered, and many people who are eventually diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome are not diagnosed until adulthood. "Most high-functioning autistic people, not knowing what is "wrong" with them, develop a lifetime pattern of using their intelligence to appear normal," Prince-Hughes points out, and this reinforces the public image of what constitutes autism.
(However, some of the ways people cope with problems, be they neurological ones like this or any other kind, are not necessarily healthy in the long run. Drinking at a young age, dropping out of high school, and becoming homeless may have been the best ways available at the time for her, but one really wishes there had been other options.)
Price-Hughes' description of her earliest attempts at romantic and sexual relationships are particularly interesting because they bring up what everyone expects from first impressions of a person and how easy it is to mistake lust for love. The author compares herself to Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager -- "I find that I am only part "human" and very much something altogether different; I am overwhelmed by the social demands of "normal life"; and I am lonely." Then a visit to the zoo leads to her great interest in watching the gorillas -- their own interactions, and how zoo visitors act toward them. "The gorillas don't speak human language, look the way humans look, move the way humans move. They are stupid. This is why gorillas are captive. This is why crazy people are captive.We are the animals who don't speak the language, look the looks, move in the right ways . . . It is easy for those who are not captive to forget that those who are remain individuals."
Price-Hughes' interest in the zoo gorillas led her first to read on her own and then to seek out academic programs that would let her learn about them and gorillas in general. This book details the individual gorillas at this zoo and tells about their behavior; I found this particularly interesting because all the other books I've read on apes have either involved observation of them in the wild, or in laboratory environments where they are not in family groups. This different setting allows for more detailed observation of their interactions and their individual differences -- the story of the different gorillas' tactics when given the Halloween jack-o'-lanterns on the first of November was fascinating: how this one went for the biggest pumpkins, those two for whichever were nearest, another seemed to test them to find the best quality in a similar way to grocery shoppers in the produce department, and still another chose the one with the nicest carving. And human similarity to our ape relatives actually helped Price-Hughes: "I tried to apply the things I'd learned from the gorillas in social situations. I tried to put people at ease by acknowledging them with quick sideways glances and smiles -- which evolved from submissive primate grimaces and are intended to convey that no harm is meant." And so on.
The gorillas became the author's friends to such a degree that when one called Congo died, she took some of his hair to Africa to bury, as Congo's body was going to be dissected and analyzed in the U.S. Price-Hughes was also able to continue a long personal relationship and continue academically through a Bachelor's, a Master's, and eventually a Doctorate degree. None of it was easy -- could it be for anyone? -- and only through researching a younger relative's condition did she find out a name for what might be her own condition. However, just having a name and a diagnosis to point to does sometimes help in dealing with other people, and sometimes also with one's own emotions.
Price-Hughes is a proud parent of a son, but she is still also connected to gorillas and other apes. The single most amazing thing in this book for me was her story of meeting Kanzi the bonobo (the species formerly known as pygmy chimpanzee):
"When I first met him, he asked me to play chase, and so we ran up and down along the fence, back and forth, him with a big bonobo smile and me slipping into my natural gorilla ways. Suddenly he stopped, grabbed the lexigram board containing the symbols he uses to communicate with, made a series of gestures, and then pointed to the lexigram board. I had to explain apologetically that I didn't understand what he was saying. Sue and I discovered that he had realized I was a "gorilla," had remembered seeing videos of Koko the signing gorilla, formulated the hypothesis that gorillas use signs to communicate, and then employed accurate ASL signs to ask, "You . . . gorilla . . . question?" No one, not even Sue, knew that he had retained signs from watching the Koko video. He had gone through all of these cognitive and emotional steps to try and bridge the communications gap between us."Wow. It would be impressive for a human to pick up enough words of a foreign language from a (non-language-teaching) video to form a new question (not just parroting the same sentences already heard), not to mention the chain of thought. It isn't always easy for humans to realize consciously what it is that someone's physical mannerisms remind them of, either. Even if Kanzi is the Einstein of bonobos, his example shows us how much thought the furrier beings on this planet can be capable of, and justifies a lot more respect for apes and contemplation of the similarities between the human and the other higher primates. Price-Hughes' book will stretch your mind on these subjects.