Twenty-five years ago, well before such bearings of the soul were popular, Françoise Lefèvre authored a book about the challenges of raising her son who was on the autistic spectrum. Hugo was 8 years old at the time that Le Petit Prince Cannibale was published in France, and his mother’s account brings to mind similar challenges that Eustacia Cutler faced in raising and educating her autistic daughter, Temple Grandin. When Temple was a child in the 1950s, children with autism were often diagnosed as infant schizophrenics and consigned to institutions. Le Petit Prince Cannibale reached a large audience and helped change the way autism was viewed in France. The Prince has evolved into an Emperor, but the journey was fraught with peril. You can decide for yourself if schizophrenia is a term suitable to the tortured childhood mind of Julien Hugo Sylvestre Horiot. Thanks to Linda Coverdale, we have an English translation of Hugo’s remarkable autobiography of childhood, infused with pain and candor. It begins thusly: “My name is Julien. Julien Hugo Sylvestre Horiot, but I’m called Julien. I am four. I am very well behaved. Too well behaved. When something doesn’t please me, I get angry. I scream. I scream, but without words. I do not speak …. I can count in my head all day long if I want. Without stopping. But I do not speak, not even to my mother. The only one I take the trouble to speak to is my worst enemy: Julien. Only when I’m alone with him, tete-a-tete. I am going to kill him.”
Obtain a copy of the emperor, c’est moi, and I promise you that the next time a child “makes a scene” in your office, or in public and you’re tempted to make a value judgement, your judgement will not be the same. As Hugo’s mother Francoise observes in her Afterword to the emperor: “To avoid being in this world and to protect himself, how could a small being barely three years old set in motion a veritable war machine against himself and others and, acting as an implacable strategist, organize his own chaos.” We speak in developmental and behavioral vision of children building their own space world, but I had not considered the depth which deviation from neurotypical patterns might be choices a child makes while fighting for survival in what he perceives as a very disorganized world. The attraction to spinning wheels, the avoidance of eye contact, the violence, and the outward mutism were childhood organizational strategies that Hugo addresses powerfully now that he is a successful thespian and raconteur. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the world of autism is a stage, and we men and women merely players. We have our exits and entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.