One of the most pronounced symptoms of autism, a baffling and often untreatable mental disorder, is withdrawal. That Donna Williams was able—with some outside help, but mainly through sheer force of will— to overcome her illness enough to obtain a college education and write an autobiography in her twenties is proof of her extraordinariness. Williams is a so-called “high functioning” autistic, capable of communication at a nearly normal level, but her two books about her outward journey reveal her to be not just articulate but a fine writer.
As Williams describes it in SOMEBODY SOMEWHERE, “Autism makes me feel sometimes that I have no self at all, and I feel so overwhelmed by the presence of other people that I cannot find myself. Autism can also make me so totally aware of myself that it is like the whole world around me becomes irrelevant and disappears.” With the publication of NOBODY NOWHERE, Williams became a celebrity, obliged to interact with the world outside herself. Whereas earlier she had related to others largely in the guise of two alternative personalities, whom she called Willie and Carol, her determination to share her story forces her to abandon them. She also forces herself to abandon the girl in the mirror, her closest “human” connection, and take on relationships with other people, many of them fellow autistics.
On her journey to self-discovery, Williams has acquired a great deal of knowledge at an early age. She has shared her insights by working with autistic children and—perhaps more significantly—by writing her story, so that the world outside can understand not only her, but others like her.