Thursday, August 23, 2007

Is Oskar Schell Autistic?

After reading Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" I went to Wikipedia's entry for the book. The 9-year-old narrator Oskar is described there as "possibly autistic (at the very least he shows some signs of Asperger's Syndrome)". What the? While I read the novel I never thought he might be autistic. He's so not autistic!

So I Googled the novel's title and Oskar along with the word "autistic" and found many book reviews and references where he received an autism or Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis from several commentators. Again, what the? Oskar is often compared to Mark Haddon's autistic protagonist in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time", a book I haven't read. But for the purpose of "diagnosing" Oskar that doesn't matter. I may not be familiar with the famous fictional autistic boy, but I do know a real autistic kid from, well, incredibly close (and when he was a little baby he was also extremely loud).

First of all, not every child who is extremely intelligent and takes an interest in sciences is an autistic savant. We neurotypicals have our fair share of geniuses. Secondly, Oskar doesn't show any anxiety about meeting new people, going to places he has never seen before and entering into new situations. In fact, he is very friendly to strangers (maybe even too much).

Some people cite Oskar's rules as evidence of his autism. He doesn't use public transportation, elevators and bridges. Considering the fact that his father was killed in a terrorist attack that is a perfectly normal reaction. Besides, Oskar is willing to break the rules when he must. There is one eccentricity - Oskar's insistence on wearing only white clothes - that I cannot explain, but it in itself is not enough to make a case for an autism spectrum disorder.

People also say Oskar has difficulty expressing his feelings. After the trauma he has gone through, wouldn't most normal children, or even adults, have trouble expressing themselves?

I haven't seen anyone write about Oskar's grandfather being autistic - but if anyone in this novel has the condition, it is Grandpa. He doesn't speak. He expresses himself in writing. If he's autistic and autism is genetic, maybe it makes more sense that Oskar is indeed autistic. But even this old "empty Schell" of a man is not autistic. He loses the ability to speak when he is in his 20's or early 30's, and though it is suggested it is a psychological problem and not a physical one, I have a hard time believing an autistic adult would regress at that age. The guy experienced the horrors of the Dresden bombings during World War II. That's enough of a trauma to render anyone speechless (though he lost his speech gradually).

Anyway, do you agree? Have I missed any points? Do you think Jonathan Safran Foer meant for Oskar to be autistic? Your comments are welcome.

25 comments:

  1. I read this book for my subject englisch (i'm living in the Netherlands) and I found it a very nice book. It was my job to discover if Oskar is autistic. I don't think he is, but however I do see some comparisons with Christopher Boone from "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" What do you think about that?

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    1. I can see that you're pretty good at 'englisch'. You must be getting A+ for all your 'testes'.

      LOL.

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  2. I still haven't read "The Curious Incident" so I can't compare the two characters.

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  4. Oskar wears white to protect himself from a nuclear attack. He gives a presentation to his class on the Hiroshima bombing and how white objects were not affected because white reflects light. He never comes out and says that's why he wears white, but the reader can infer it.

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  5. Oskar is not an average 9 year old, that much is true. One criteria for Aspberger's Syndrome is to have above average intelligence, which Oskar surely has. Although he is not fearful of new people or situations, he has a hard time understanding social cues. For example, he tells a maid that her uniform is "incredibly beautiful" and doesn't understand that he sounded condescending. These types of social miscues occur frequently throughout the book. This could be explained away by immaturity and inexperience, however it is another aspect of an autism spectrum disorder. Perhaps Oskar is too grand to be labeled, but as an educator that has worked with students with ASD I saw those red flags.

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  6. The reason I found this site is that as I read the book I concluded Oskar had Aspergers - along with the social miscues, he actually states at one point that he has difficulty with relationships - another key flag. He also develops an idea and becomes totally consumed by it - one track mind- in this case talking to all of the Blacks and finding the lock for the key. Aspergers often involves a narrow but very intense interest and focus. The days he wasn't pursuing this interest were "boring." I have read "The Curious Incident . .." and thought of it as I read this book. I have a grown son with Aspergers, had a brother who was autistic but brilliant and have a nephew who is autistic but non-verbal in his 30's. So this is a topic about which I have some experience and have done a lot of reading.
    I am reading this for my book club on Friday. There are 3 psychologists in the group. It will be interesting to see if they agree. By the way, regardless of the Aspergers angle, I loved the book and will always remember "heavy boots."

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  7. I hadn't read a review before starting this book but recosnised straight away that Oskar has ASD. My son has Aspergers so I'm familiar with him obviously and other children we've met. The thing about Asperger's is that it is a spectrum, it covers a very wide range of traits. Maybe you are only familiar with one autistic child. And also, Autism is very different in practice to Aspergers, much more severe, which is why you can't really 'diagnose' Oskar by comparing him to Christopher Boone from 'The Curious Incident...' I actually resisted the diagnosis for ages because my son didn't seem to fit with so many of the traits. He is an extremely sociable child with lots of neurotypical friends. What astonished me when we met other children with ASD is how different they all are. Contrary to what one of the commenters said, above average intelligence is a trait, not a criteria. Not all ASD children have above average intelligence. Oskar relates to adults but not to children his own age. The wearing certain colours, certain foods, the busy, busy inventiveness he knows himself is beyond his control, the single-minded obsessive focus. His father can tune into Oskar's flights of fancy but his mother can't. I think his father's character was autistic also if you look at the fragments of the relationship between the father and mother. Oskar also mentions that most of the kids in his class have ADHD. That all said, while I've no doubt Oskar has ASD, grief will take you to some very weird places. EL&EC is a brilliant portrait of bereavement. Interesting comparative read would be 'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion. Just to say as well that I LOVE that Jonathan Safran Foer chose not to name the ASD label.

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  8. I was thinking the same exact thing. The Curious Incident is my all time favorite book!

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  9. I am autistic, and I show little anxiety about going to new places and meeting new people. I am also very willing to socialize. My autism comes into play because socializing is not intuitive (I can't read nonverbal communication) and it is incredibly difficult and draining. That doesn't preclude me from doing or wanting to do it however. I am currently researching autistic characters in literature (both officially diagnosed, and proposed or possible), and may include remarks from your article in my final analysis. When I first began to read this book, I immediately thought autistic, for the record. In addition to being autistic myself, I am involved in autism advocacy and know dozens of autistic folks personally, spanning a variety of diagnoses.

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  10. I always thought Oskar wore white clothes because of the story he heard about the 'white chess pieces' being unharmed in the bombing of Hiroshima (or Nagasaki? Can't recall).

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  11. Hmmm, so he definitely doesn't have autism just because the writer of this blog knows 1, yes only 1 person with ASD!

    Well I just saw the trailer for the film and immediately said to my husband that the young boy appeared to show autistic traits!

    Well, given that I work in a school with kids who have all been diagnosed as on the spectrum-and given that every one of them shows different autistic traits, and taking into consideration the triad of impairment and the many combinations of the triad that could lead to a diagnosis of ASD - I'd say there's a little more validity to my argument for the character having Autisn.

    However, that said, it is purely opinion and their opinion of oskar not having autism is as valid as my opinion of him being on the spectrum!

    Kat

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  12. Have you read the book or only seen the trailer? After you posted this, I looked for the trailer and saw that it begins with Oskar saying that his father told him that the way he saw the world was a gift and that he was different from everybody else. If I remember correctly, that part wasn't in the novel.

    From the trailer, it does indeed look like they went with the ASD interpretation of the novel in the movie.

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  13. You know what they say.... If you've seen one person with Asperger's, you've seen one person with Asperger's. (-: I also found this site because, after seeing the movie preview (I have not read the book yet) I wondered if Oskar had Asperger's. I think, based on many of the insightful comments here, that Oskar must have ASD. I look forward to reading the book and seeing the movie.

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  14. All I can contribute is that I have asperger's and reading this story gave me comfort that there are more people out there like me.

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  15. I'm in the process of reading the book at the minute and I would have to agree with the path the film as taken and say that Oskar is indeed on the Autistic Spectrum. It is actually refreshing to see and read something which highlights ASD and the traits that come along with it. It will be interesting to see just how accurate the full film is able to portray ASD. I adore the kids I work with and would be horrified if any interpretation of their condition were to insult them in any way.

    Kat x

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  16. I work at a special education school. I think the most important thing to think about it not the diagnosis. People try to put kids in a box based on their traits, characteristics, and abnormalities. Lets just remember, at the heart of it all, Oskar is still just a KID!

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  17. I am a diagnosed aspie and I am friendly to strangers and I don't fear new places. You more than likely that you don't understand that everyone with aspergers is different. To be diagnosed with aspergers you do not have to fit into every aspergers stereotype.
    Having anxiety in social situations is not a trait of aspergers.
    It social anxiety which often occurs in aspies since our social skills are considered poor.
    Oskar either has aspergers or some sort of post traumatic stress.
    I read the book and I could really identify with him.
    No, not all strange geniuses have to be autistic but its not unlikely. He even had a couple of meltdowns. What about that is not autistic?
    The curious incident of the dog at nighttime is a disgrace. The character is portrayed as an apathetic,emotionless robot and the writer knew nothing about autism. He just wanted publicity.
    I would not bother wasting my time reading that crap.

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    1. People don't get Aspergers and High Functioning Autism. That's why the autism symbol is a puzzle piece. I was like Oskar. I made friends with some adults easily. But was a complete loner and outcast amongst my peers. I wandered all over the place and loved to explore. But I sometimes got very panicky if we traveled too far away by car because I was afraid we'd get stranded. Other times not at all. Sometimes I was very scared of new people and places; other times not. Usually it depended on how in control I felt. I came/come off as super intelligent but I did/do very poorly academically. I used to be very hard to be around because I didn't understand boundaries, others personal space, social clues etc. At 50 I have my own place and have been employed for 20 years as a nightwatchman, because I lack the aptitude to do most any other job and I get to be left alone. I am a complete loner (but not antisocial) and have never had anything close to a significant other. But, for the most part I seem very normal, capable and intelligent to most. Of course a lot of that took a lot of practice and mimicry. I go to a small church to socially interact (outside of family), which has worked out well. Oskar is described as having an almost crippling imagination i.e. too much a captive in his own world. I have made great strides, but I will always be a time to time visitor from the planet Me. Always seeing others as if from behind a glass wall. But I'm a happy camper most of the time so don't cry for me Argentina :-)

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  18. I hope no one takes these negative reviews seriously. This film has got to be one of the, if not the most moving and inspiring films I have ever seen. What I don't think critics are seeing is the that the main character (Oskar) is in the Autism spectrum. He mentions very briefly that he was once tested for Aspergers, which is "high functioning" autism. I also believe the title is referring to this, since they suffer from sensory issues. Once you get and understand that, it gives the film a whole new experience. Being the father of an autistic boy, I understand why the trains and cars and plains seemed liked blurs and confusion to Oskar. I understand why he was very anal about his searching strategy for the key. I understand why he waits 5 minutes at the door before saying "I love you", to his mother. Those parts of the story weren't totally meant to be "cutesy", like one critic said. Those are real characteristics of child with aspergers, or autism. His incredible loyalty and love for his family is characteristic of the intense bonds autistic children can make. So when my wife and I watched this film, we were beyond moved by how sensitive the director was to this. THIS IS NOT A 9/11 MOVIE. THIS IS NOT A MOVIE ABOUT AUTISM. But if you know a little more about both, you'd enjoy it more. It's just a movie about a boy who lost his best friend. And anyone who wants to discredit the originality or intent of this film, probably needs to call their father and say, "I love you".

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  19. He is so not autistic!! I love the book - and Oskar, and I have worked with autistic children - he is not!!

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  20. I have read both this book, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and Christopher Boone is almost identical to Oskar. While his social skills may not be as obviously strained, his personal thoughts, rules, and feelings reveal very deep problems that he has. Think about his relationships with other children. Think about his anxiety. I think the match is obvious, and it contributes to the book in a unique way.

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  21. Not autistic. From what I've seen depicted the character has acetylcholine hypersensitivity disorder. Either his metabolic pathways fail to modulate acetylcholine levels or his receptors are too few and far between to compensate for the natural cycle. Either way he experiences heightened signals from the five senses intermittently which becomes too much to bear. Normal talking would sound like screaming, a dim light would feel like a sunbeam, etc. Also he would have racing thoughts, and inappropriate anger, things like that.

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  22. This comment was raped by the author.

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