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will develop remarkable, if useless, skills, like being able to recite hundreds of prime numbers, but most will remain withdrawn and exceedingly irritable, and few will have much prospect of a rounded, independent and productive life.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
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness