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will develop remarkable, if useless, skills, like being able to recite hundreds of prime numbers, but most will remain withdrawn and exceedingly irritable, and few will have much prospect of a rounded, independent and productive life.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