Book Review: Unlocking the World of Autism
In “An Outsider’s Guide to Humans,” Camilla Pang uses science and her own experience to explore life on the spectrum. Book review by Sara Luterman.
Growing up autistic in a non-autistic world can be very isolating. We are often strange and out of sync with peers, despite our best efforts. Autistic adults have, until very recently, been largely absent from media and the public sphere. Finding role models is difficult. Finding useful advice for navigating life’s problems, even more so. In “An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me About What We Do and Who We Are,” Camilla Pang maps out rules for life for young people on the spectrum, as well as anyone else who would like to come along for the ride.
“An Outsider’s Guide to Humans” recently won the Royal Academy of Science Book Prize. Pang, a postdoctoral scientist with a Ph.D. in bioinformatics from University College London, is the youngest person to win the award, as well as the first person of color. The award is well deserved. Her writing is engaging, funny, intimate, and educational. Using scientific principles and a smattering of pop psychology, Pang explains, with accompanying hand-drawn diagrams, how she navigates the world. In doing so, she provides an insightful glimpse into a different way of being.
“Since I can remember, my life has been dominated by one question: How do you connect with other people when you’re not wired to do so?” writes Pang, who is on the spectrum. There are so many unspoken rules that autistic people miss. Typical children learn appropriate behavior from these invisible signals. Pang painstakingly taught herself, and in this book, she lays out her methods. “There are people like me,” Pang writes, “who have had to ask how long you should hug someone to offer comfort.” The answer, according to Pang, is “two to three seconds," and "four if it was a really bad breakup.”
In each chapter, Pang links common social challenges autistic and non-autistic young people face, with scientific concepts. She uses machine learning to explain decision-making, proteins to explain human social interaction, and the wavelengths of light to explain fear. Fundamental forces of the universe map onto humanity, explaining it in a way that is painstakingly detailed and beautiful.
Autism can be wonderful but it can also be terrible, and Pang touches on both. “I have learned to love myself as the unashamedly [autistic] person I am," she writes. "It has been the work of my life to balance out these competing parts of me, and capitalize on them where they are most useful." Yet "you can love a person while simultaneously hating being them,” Pang notes.
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” is a common saying in the autism community. That is, you can learn very little about autism in general by only looking at a single autistic person. Autism is an extremely heterogeneous condition, defined entirely by observed behavior, like failure to make eye contact or difficulty with social interaction. There are no definitive biological markers. It’s likely that what we call “autism” is hundreds of different genetic quirks.
Still, we share commonalities, a certain way of thinking and seeing the world. I dislike the caprice that autistic people are aliens — beyond it being cliché, so much language around autism is already dehumanizing. But I understand feeling like an alien. And I recognize Pang as someone like me. We are from the same country, and it is a rare delight to meet a fellow traveler so far from home. We speak the same language, and it is a language I’ve never seen in a book from mainstream press before. While I know very little about machine learning or network theory, I know the specific problems Pang addresses. They’re questions I had when I was younger, too.
For example, many autistic people struggle with chaos and the unknown — they are terrifying and uncomfortable in a way that is difficult to explain. But chaos and the unknown are also intrinsic to living in the world. “Without disorder, you might as well be living as an inanimate object. A chair perhaps (but not mine, since it is already taken),” Pang wryly notes, and I can’t help but laugh and agree. It is impossible to achieve a completely stable existence, and even if we could, it would not be advisable or optimal — the only way to be entirely stable is to be dead, according to Pang and the laws of thermodynamics. I and many other autistic adults learned that lesson the hard way, but perhaps an autistic young person who reads this book won’t have to.
Pang is a little younger than I am, in her late 20s, but she had insight into some issues I’d essentially written off as unsolvable. At times, she gave the kind of pep talk I can’t imagine getting from a non-autistic person. My favorite chapter, “Learning to embrace error,” was full of things I desperately needed to hear, even as an adult. “Experiencing a setback of some sort is not sufficient evidence to conclude that everything has failed, or that a system or decision should be abandoned wholesale,” Pang maintains. Her perspective is refreshingly realistic: This is not a self-help book full of chirpy positivity. The advice is practical and direct, and involves no wishful thinking.
"An Outsider’s Guide to Humans" also serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone, translating an internal autistic experience that non-autistic people may normally find unrelatable. Pang spends considerable time explaining autism to a non-autistic audience. There is great risk in doing so. One can unintentionally become a “self-narrating zoo exhibit.” The term, coined by early neurodiversity advocate Jim Sinclair, describes a large body of autobiographical work by autistic people. We can become objects for typical people to gawk at, or worse, pity. We are rewarded by doing so. Most of the time, Pang manages to avert the problem. Her voice is authoritative in a way that the self-narrating zoo exhibit is typically not allowed. However, she does occasionally veer into a space that I found uncomfortable. Not everything needs to be explained to everyone. Not everything needs an explanatory comma.
I hope Pang's book is the first of many. There should be more by and for autistic people. We have so much to teach each other, and so much to learn. “On life’s pendulum, we all have to find our own rhythm, and the people who can help us dance to it,” Pang writes, while teaching some of the steps in her own way.
Sara Luterman is a freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C. You can find her writing in The Nation, American Prospect, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.