In The Counterlife of Autism

“Tomorrow’s Child,” a story by Ray Bradbury, opens with Peter and Polly Horn traveling to a hospital for the birth of their first child. In their technological utopia, a helicopter conveys them across a sky spangled with rocket ships. An advanced birthing machine awaits, promising to eliminate Polly’s labor. At the moment of truth, however, the hospital’s machine malfunctions. She has delivered a healthy male infant. He weighs seven pounds, eight ounces, and sports a normal nervous system. There’s just one problem: the boy has been delivered into the fourth dimension. From outside the three-dimensional structure of human perception, he appears in the shape of a tiny blue pyramid, with three darting eyes and six wriggling limbs. The obstetrician says that the boy himself apprehends the phenomenal world around him cubically. The Horns name their discarnate issue Py and take him home. But the existential limbo fills them with anguish and repulses their friends and neighbors. Desperate from isolation, Peter and Polly return to the hospital intending to abandon Py to medical science. The obstetrician surprises them once more. He hasn’t figured out how to retrieve Py, but reverse-engineering the birthing machine could place them in the fourth dimension with him. They could perceive him as he really is. The price, of course, would be their own geometrical transfiguration. Peter would take the shape of a hexagon. Polly would look oblong. With heavy hearts they assent to the bargain, trading expulsion from membership in the human community for the joy of sharing in their child’s perception of reality. For parents and children wrestling with neurodevelopmental conditions today, Bradbury’s allegory has lost none of its poignancy. Autism, my son Misha’s primary diagnosis, constitutes “a whole mode of being” and “touches on the deepest questions of ontology,” as the neurologist Oliver Sacks

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