Dawn Prince-Hughes

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


Subtitled "My Journey through Autism," Prince-Hughes's memoir leads the reader through a poetic, at times mystical, journey from "being a wild thing out of context" (1) to finding a way to understand the world and live "in context" (11). The author, an anthropologist, has Asperger's syndrome. Prince-Hughes explains that Asperger's is a form of autism in which the individual develops "age-appropriate" language and cognitive skills as well as "self-help skills" and curiosity about the environment but has marked difficulties with social interaction and shows the obsessive, ritualistic behavior similar to other autistic individuals.

As the author relates, her poor social skills, discomfort with physical closeness, sensory sensitivities (to touch and odors for example) and other odd behaviors annoyed her instructors and triggered taunts and even physical abuse from classmates and acquaintances. She describes her misery one such day when she was confronted by an impatient teacher: "I often couldn't take in people as whole entities, even when I was relatively relaxed . . . I was caught in a whirlwind of horrible sensory information and unrelenting criticism" (43).

Getting through each day was filled with emotional pain and suffering, and required a tremendous expenditure of energy in usually unsuccessful attempts to "fit in." Complicating her social isolation was the gradual recognition that her adolescent sexuality was somewhat blunted or, if anything, inclined toward lesbianism. She began drinking (alcohol) in the seventh grade. At 16 she left school and home, embarking on a long period of alcoholism, drug dependence, a "hippie" lifestyle and outright homelessness.

Prince-Hughes had always found refuge in nature, but later she also took pleasure in the physical activity of dancing, becoming a club performer in Seattle. During time off one day, she packed lunch and ate it at the zoo. She spent three hours watching the gorillas. "It was so subtle and steady that I felt like I was watching people for the first time in my whole life . . . Free from acting, free from the oppression that comes with brash and bold sound, blinding stares and uncomfortable closeness that mark the talk of human people. In contrast, these people spoke softly, their bodies poetic, their faces and dance poetic, spinning conversations out of the moisture and perfume, out of the ground and out of the past. They were like me" (93).

Thus began the author's profound relationship and identification with gorillas, an interaction that changed her life, resulting eventually in scholarly work and a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary anthropology, a faculty appointment, and gradual understanding of her own neuroatypical condition, not diagnosed as Asperger's until she was 36 years old.

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