Book Review – Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism

While traveling through Arizona many years ago I read Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism by Dawn Prince-Hughes, Ph.D. As the secondary title indicates, this is a first-hand account of autism. The author offers a vivid and insightful account of autism.

She was diagnosed rather late in her life, after a childhood punctuated by misunderstanding and isolation. Fortunately, she was able to learn about human socialization and relationships through her keen observation of gorilla communities. She writes, “This is a book about autism. Specifically, it is about my autism, which is both like and unlike other people’s autism. But just as much, it is a story about how I emerged from the darkness of it into the beauty of it. It is about how I moved full circle from being a wild thing out of context as a child, to being a wild thing in context with a family of gorillas, who taught me how to be civilized. They taught me the beauty of being wild and gentle together and as one.”

While there are many excellent texts about Asperger’s Syndrome and autism, this was the first book I read that described it from the inside. Dr. Prince-Hughes is eloquent in her poetry and prose. She describes confusion, rage, fear, and joyful discovery in a way that touches the reader’s heart and heightens understanding. Instead of lists of characteristics or clinical observations, this book placed the experience into context. My understanding has certainly been expanded by this book. I am hopeful that it will change my acceptance of the more “annoying” behaviors often associated with autism. It is harder to remain annoyed when I remember that the strong need for repetition exhibited by persons with autism can be the result of anxiety or panic. Dr. Prince-Hughes had this to say, “Most autistic people need order and ritual and will find ways to make order where they feel chaos. So much stimulation streams in, rushing into one’s body without ever being processed: the filters that other people have simply aren’t there. Swimming through the din of the fractured and the unexpected, one feels as if one were drowning in an ocean without predictability, without markers, without a shore. It is like being blinded

There are also examples of wonderful and intricate coping mechanisms. She used a formula to get along with people in the workplace. This included talking about her skills a third of the time, talking with colleagues about how their interests mergered for a third of the time, and talking about current events and “softened” opinions about them a third of the time. This had to be approached consciously. She also counted seconds to know how long to look into another person’s eyes and when to look away. Each of these required deliberate practice and application.

This book is a great source of information, but is also an incredibly engaging autobiography. Dr. Prince-Hughes has a wonderful command of language. Consider this self description, “I am an individual. I am different, for reasons germane to the phenomenon of autism and reasons mundane. All that is in between and at both ends have made my life. Within these pages, an archaeology cleared of dust and fear, I talk about this life. It is the archaeology of a culture of one.”

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