When a ‘wild’ child was captured by huntsmen in 19th-century France, doctors and scientists thought he presented the perfect opportunity to test whether nurture or nature was responsible for development. The boy, who was thought to be about 12, was rumoured to have been living alone in the woods for seven years. He didn’t speak or communicate in anyway, was unaware of social niceties (all those concerning bodily functions included), had terrible tantrums and seemed incapable of learning. A Dr Jean-MarcGaspard Itard -a liberal in his day-took on the boy, who he named Victor, with the claim that he could “civilise the savage”.
This is author Jill Dawson’s starting point for her new novel, Wild Boy. The idea to turn the bare bones of Victor’s life into a book came to her when she was reading about a disorder her I ewis had ii if been dia nosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism. The book she was reading, Autism: Explaining The Enigma, by Uta Frith, claimed that Victor was the first documented case of autism.
Dawson started looking into Victor’s story and found herself agreeing with Frith’s theory. ” was reading a lot about autismat the time,” says Dawson, and meetinga lot of autistic children. Two of the things I noticed that were also documented in Victor’s case were the lack of a sense of danger and the fact that autistic people often physically ask other people to do the thing they want to do-for example, place someone’s hand on a cup when they want to drink from it instead of holding it themselves.” . – Another manifestation of autistic spectrum disorders is a tendency to find colours, sounds and smells much more intense than other people do – a state that can be pleasurable or scarily overwhelming-yet to be immune to the extremes of hot and cold. “Recently, a friend’s child burnt his hand really badly,” says Dawson, “but she didn’t realise because he hardly made a sound. And Victor survived, without clothes, through several winters living in a forest.” In reality, not much is known about Victor’s life except from the reports that
Itard wrote during the six years he tried to teach him to speak. What is clear is that Itard only took care of Victor’s educational needs; his day-to-day needs were looked after by a Madame Guerin, who ended up caring for him until he died at the age of 40. Dawson wanted to find out more about Guerin but wasn’t able to. She thinks this lack of credit given to the mother-role is typical: “All the basic caring she did was underrated. No one had thought to find out about her. I decided to use her character as a foil for Itard’s over-intellectualising.”Dawson’s novel alternates between chapters narrated by Guerin, finally giving her a personality and an intent, and by the well-intentioned but emotionally stunted Itard. He attempts to care for Victor’s mind while Guerin cares for his body and
soul-and she becomes the character through whom we view Victor as a mother might. Something Dawson no doubt drew on her own experiences as a mother for. As a toddler, her son was oddly resistant to change – at seven he had a particular route he had to follow to school and would have terrible tantrums if Dawson tried to go a quicker way. He carried collections of soaps, plastic fruit and string around with him in a carrier bag. This obsessiveness is one of the three indicators that doctors use to diagnose autistic disorders; another is a lack of communication with others and it was this that Dawson found the hardest to bear.
“When Lewis was small he would fall over and scream, but he wouldn’t want me to comfort him. That was incredibly hard. I couldn’t help feeling, if only I had loved him better, he might change. Before I had Lewis, I was a big believer in nurture over nature, in therapy as a cure, but I now have a stronger sense that children come out of the womb already shaped. Perhaps I am somewhere in the middle now.”
One aspect of this inablity to communicate is a refusal to make eye contact. Luke Jackson, who wrote a book about being a teenager with Aspergers when he was just 14 (Freaks, Geeks And Asperger Syndrome, Jessica Kingsley Publishers), has said that when he looks people in the face it is like their eyes are burning into him. He has got around this by looking just above their eyes instead. “Some people who work with autistic children spend their whole day trying to get them to make eye contact, because it’s something that’s very important to us,” explains Dawson. “But maybe we shouldn’t find it that important.”
Lewis is now at an independent school for children with Asperger Syndrome. All 29 of the pupils there are boys – autism affects nine times more boys than girls. In fact, in his book The Essential Difference (Penguin), Simon Baron-Cohen describes it as being an extreme example of the ‘male’ brain. “Many men have problems in social situations,” agrees Dawson. “And we’re less forgiving of stereotypical male behaviour than we once were – the computer geek and the boffin aren’t as tolerated. Men are now expected to be better at empathy and communication.” Interestingly, the autistic girls who Dawson’s met seem to have fewer problems with empathising than the boys. “Perhaps that implies that nurture is still quite a strong influence,” says Dawson. “Although these girls are autistic the fact that they are constantly taught to care about others comes through.” Dawson feels that the belief that autistic people aren’t capable of empathy is often over- stated anyway. One of the most moving scenes in Wild Boy takes place the day after the death of Madame Guerin’s husband. It has been Victor’s job to lay the table, and he lays it, as usual, for three people. When Guerin comes in she stumbles at the sight and drops a plate. From then on Victor always lays the table for two. Itard’s reports show that both he and Guerin believed this demonstrated that Victor had sympathy for the feelings of others. “It was really important to me to put that in the book,” says Dawson. “When I’m creating fiction from non-fiction I feel there are some things that I have to remain faithful to. The idea that autistic people can’t empathise is wrong- though it may only happen once in a lifetime. “Itard felt a failure because Victor never spoke more than three or four words (‘lait’ and ‘mon dieu’ were among them) and this threw into doubt Itard’s then-controversial belief that human nature is created rather than innate. If Victor was autistic, this would go a long way towards explaining his problems with learning. Other ‘wild’ children have ‘recovered’ far more language than Victor ever did. It was perhaps unfortunate that Itard tested his beliefs on a child who couldn’t respond. “There are still competing theories about autism,” Dawson points out. “Is it genetic, biological, environmental? We want to connect with people with autism but should we push that? Do they want to connect with us? Autism is still an enigma.”