BLOOMSBURY £12.99 (230pp). £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Send in the Idiots, by Kamran Nazeer

Fools rush in and put things in order

To all appearances, Kamran Nazeer is a confident young man to whom success has come easily. Having spent his childhood in America and Scotland, he took a doctorate at Cambridge, lived in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and has now become a high-powered Whitehall civil servant. He is also a talented and combative journalist, specialising in analyses of Muslim experience that combine local knowledge with cosmopolitan scepticism. A couple of years ago he set up a series of meetings with some people he was at school with in New York City in the early 1980s, and the resulting conversations are the basis of a subtle, well-written and thought-provoking book which reminds us that things are not always as they seem.

The school he attended between the ages of four and seven was a private institution dedicated to the education of children who had been diagnosed as autistic. The concept of autism was quite new at the time, and it focused attention on a neglected group of children - perhaps one in a thousand, with boys outnumbering girls by three to one - who typically exhibit a pathological incapacity for communication and imaginative play. There is a common belief that autistic children are all geniuses at heart - budding Wittgensteins and Bobby Fischers - but the truth is that they are not abnormally intelligent, merely obsessive and desperately insecure. Many of them will develop remarkable, if useless, skills, like being able to recite hundreds of prime numbers, but most will remain withdrawn and exceedingly irritable, and few will have much prospect of a rounded, independent and productive life.

When he entered his special school in New York, the four-year-old Kamran Nazeer could not speak a word and refused to pay attention to others, but he was expert at arranging toys, and seeing patterns in carpet pile. His fellow pupils were much the same. Children were greeted with hand-shakes and sustained eye-contact, and made to take part in activities involving negotiation or co-operation, though they often ended up fighting.

Travelling around America to meet his old schoolfriends 20 years on, Nazeer discovers that their early schooling has stood them in good stead. One of them is forging a career as a political speech-writer, though he does not get out much, and cannot feel comfortable in a strange house until has done some tidying or mending, or at least put some books in alphabetical order. Another is working as a bicycle courier, and prides himself on being able to negotiate the city at speed with his eyes closed; on the other hand he has difficulty with a boyfriend who treats him as a misunderstood genius. A third is a pioneering computer scientist, who gets round his sociophobia by carrying a puppet and ventriloquizing the words that would otherwise be too difficult to say.

In writing about his friends, Nazeer gives away a lot about himself. He feels at home with well-planned logical arguments, but has to steel himself for open-ended conversations: talking to strangers, he says, is "the autistic person's version of extreme sports". He avoids answering the phone, is very particular about how he takes a shower, and never goes out without a crocodile clip to play with when the going gets tough. It costs him a lot of inner effort to lead his outwardly normal life.

According to one theory, autism is caused by "mind-blindness", or an inability to recognise that one is not the centre of the universe and that other people have thoughts and feelings. Nazeer will have none of this. Autistic people simply have exceptional difficulty dealing with the chaos and unpredictability of the world, and for that reason they have to develop little routines that generate havens of "local coherence" where they can feel at home. The teachers in that little school in New York knew how to nurture these havens - until funding ran out and it closed.

Jonathan Ree's 'I See a Voice' is published by Flamingo

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot