News from the Border

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Jane McDonnell’s journey into the borderland between autism and normality began in 1972 with the birth of her son, Paul. Very slow to develop language, Paul as a young child seemed to live in a world of his own. Insistent upon routine and ritual, upset by change, entirely unable to relate to other children through the childhood world of imaginative pretend play, and plagued by strange fears (might gravity stop working while he slept?), Paul was fascinated by mechanical things, compulsively dismantling every conceivable household item with his beloved screwdriver, obsessed with numbers and measurement, and gifted with an uncanny memory for dates and events.

McDonnell’s detailed and highly individualistic portrait of the borderland world of a high-functioning autistic child is much enhanced by the book’s poignant afterword, written by Paul himself.

Besides tracing Paul’s unique path from infancy to young manhood, McDonnell chronicles with wisdom, honesty, and insight her own painful journey, from the guilt and grief that drove her into alcoholism and threatened her marriage, to mature acceptance of her son, not as a changeling or a shadow of his real self, but as a complete and wonderful person in his own right. The journey took her through the terrible dilemma faced by all parents of handicapped children: Should one work hard to “normalize” the child and thereby risk teaching him that he can never “measure up” to standards of normality, or should one appreciate and value the child’s differentness at the risk of leaving him trapped forever in lonely oddity? As an extended examination of this deeply important question, McDonnell’s book should be required reading for all parents and professionals engaged in the lives of children who are different.