Somehow recently I stumbled across this story from The Telegraph about Temple Gradin, whose life was evidently the subject of a recent Emmy-winning biopic. I know I’ve read something about Grandin before. A book? An essay? Something. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a book by her; but it was enough to make me think I should read more… And then I never did.
But anyway what caught my eye as I scanned the Telegraph story about Grandin’s appearance at the Emmy awards was the parallel between her story and the story of St Kevin, which is the subject of one of our favorite picture books, The Blackbird’s Nest (My review of The Blackbird’s Nest is here.)
Born in 1947, so severely autistic that most doctors and even her father wanted her institutionalised (the lifelong development disorder, which affects how people communicate and interact with others, was then barely understood), Grandin not only overcame her disability but turned it to her own advantage. Sent one summer from her Boston home as a teenager to stay on her uncle and aunt�s Arizona ranch, Grandin discovered that her total lack of empathy with humans � she would jump if anyone so much as touched her � was offset by an uncanny understanding of animals. Dr Doolittle may talk to the animals. Grandin can think like them.
This echoed the book about St Kevin so closely:
But the gentle baby Kevin grew into a mischievous boy. He chased girls with stinging nettles and shoved smaller boys out of his way. When the village children saw him coming, they ducked into their homes. He pushed. He shoved. He was anything but gentle.
But with the animals, Kevin was different. When they heard his footsteps in the woods, they waited. Deer stood still so he could pet them; butterflies lit on his shoulders; and geese followed him home. Kevin befriended every animal he met.
Kevin’s parents sent him to live at a monastery to be schooled; but even the monks didn’t really know what to do with him. Finally one Lent they sent him away to pray and fast by himself for forty days.
Now I generally hate armchair psychoanalysis of historical figures; but still I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps St Kevin wasn’t autistic given his legendary dislike of people and love for animals. In fact, I wonder about many of the saints whether today they might not have been given a diagnosis of one sort or another. I’m not trying to say that somehow those diagnoses would in any way invalidate their sanctity; but rather to observe that God often seems to choose the outcasts and oddballs of this world to be instruments of his holy plan while we tend to want to categorize them and ft them into a DSM-IV diagnosis and then cure them of their oddness. Perhaps in God’s eyes autism isn’t really a disorder; but a gift, a different way of seeing and being.