No One Knows Why Autistic Children Are Often So Beautiful
But it can be a great comfort to their parents
The recent suicide of Helen Rogan received considerable media attention. Her body was found below the Hounds Ghyll viaduct, in Consett, Co Durham, with that of her 11-year-old son Mark. Mrs Rogan was a single mother; Mark was autistic.
I have no intention of commenting on Helen Rogan's despair. It's not something I've experienced. But one comment from their neighbour struck a chord: "Mark was a beautiful little boy. To look at him, nobody would have known he was suffering any illness."
It is a surprising fact that many - though by no means all - autistic children are exceptionally good-looking. Of course, every mother believes her children to be the most beautiful on Earth, but anyone who knows my sons would agree: George and Sam are extremely physically attractive.
Hans Asperger, who published a pioneering account of autism in 1944, remarked on the ethereal beauty of his patients almost as if it were a diagnostic symptom. No one, so far as I know, has yet advanced a hypothesis to explain this.
Is it the absence of the more disfiguring human emotions - guile, malice, greed - that keeps the autistic face characteristically beatific?
The eyes are large and bright, the smile undirected and serene. The autist often gives the impression either of concentrating on an inner world, or of looking through and beyond us to something out of reach.
For us ordinary mortals, does beauty have to contain an element of inaccessibility? One thinks of the beauties of fairy tales, untouchable in rose briars or glass coffins; the handsome prince whose face can only be glimpsed at midnight, and who then vanishes. Then again, John Wyndham's
Midwich cuckoos were beautiful, brilliant children planted by aliens among ordinary families in an English village. In Autism: Explaining the Enigma, Uta Frith writes: "Parents of autistic children find this story deeply evocative of.... their own experiences."
Certainly, we struggle to associate beauty with impaired intelligence. Asperger writes of the autist's "strikingly intelligent physiognomy"; such an appearance can be misleading. While IQs of every level can be found on the autistic spectrum, in the majority of cases there is some mental retardation, and the handicap is often profound. Yet it is hard to believe that a truly handsome child is not withholding some hidden intelligence. One mother I know, whose three-year-old is undergoing the diagnostic process, was told by a health professional, "He's so beautiful. What are you worrying about?
It's ironic that these children are, typically, devoid of vanity. George and Sam do not consider themselves handsome, because they have no objective means of considering themselves at all. They react to other people's looks, but only according to their own criteria - George likes blond hair; he doesn't like beards, especially black ones. They have no notion of fashion, but wear their eccentrically assembled clothes with grace.
Some parents report that their children's good looks cause them to be unfairly judged. The kind of in-supermarket behaviour that would be overlooked in a child with a visible condition, like Down's, provokes disapproving comments.
"It's so sad, she's such a pretty child." I've often heard this said. But why is it sad? My children's beauty has always been a source of solace to me. When you've had a terrible night with a small baby, you can restore your affection for the child by dressing it up and making it look really
Similarly, I can rise above some of the more "challenging" behaviours of George and Sam through the simple satisfaction of gazing at their perfect faces.
It means, too, that there is always something positive for other people to say about them. People want to like attractive children, and that is a good start. It can't be sad for the child. It can only be sad for the parent who still clings to the fantasy of what they hoped their child would be, and that is a fantasy that you really do have to get rid of. For me, their appearance comes under the heading of "Reasons to be Cheerful".
I never tire of being told how beautiful my children are because, unlike most aspects of this baffling condition, it is something certain.
Yes, they are gorgeous, aren't they? Thank you very much