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Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism

Written by Dawn Prince-Hughes, Ph.D.

Book Review by Emeline Phipps


SPED 560 - Autism Spectrum Disorder
11/11/2017

Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism is a wonderfully engaging and
insightful read that I would recommend to anyone who has interest in Autism Spectrum
Disorder, the human experience, gorilla behavior, autobiographies, or memoirs. The author,
Dawn Prince-Hughes, was not diagnosed with having autism until she was thirty-six.
Throughout the book she details her difficulties with sensory sensitivities, social interactions,
and communication. She explains how everyone in her life thought she was odd and how she
hid from people, was depressed, didn’t sleep, and for a long stretch was homeless. She details
how people helped and how they hurt.

This book was a great fit for me. The author and I share similar interests, because of this I was
better able to understand and relate to her descriptions. For example, I am a Star Trek fan and
she compares herself to a character, “Like Seven of Nine, I find that I am only part ‘human’ and
very much something altogether different; I am overwhelmed by the social demands of ‘normal’
life” (p. 85)

As I read, I was compelled by her vocabulary and writing skill. In fact, she has written six
published books at this point. She has such amazing intellect and skill that she does all of her
writing and revising in her mind and types it out after she has completed her revisions. This
book really reinforced the emphasis on the “may have” portion of characteristics describing
autism. It also defined, for me, the different aspects of communication. Written words can be a
door to communicating with others or yourself, and I have long held the incorrect assumption
that writing was difficult for all people with autism. Prince-Hughes explains her relationship to
writing in the book’s first chapter:

Writing was my salvation. I have said in the past, and I have since heard it repeated by
other autistic people, that written English is my first language, and spoken English is my second.
Since I was five years old, I have written all the wonderful and terrible things that I could not
bear to share. It was too much to disclose in conversation, with my eyes being seared by
another human being’s gaze. (p. 26)

As we move through her life and journey she moves through phases of interacting with people
and isolation. She attempts to have friendships and relationship and describes events of people
trying to take her in and then becoming overwhelmed with her. While she expresses anger with
some of the situations she also expresses compassion and understanding for how difficult
interacting with her was for so many years. She describes trying to be what she thought people
were and how wrong she often was and how often people didn’t understand or appreciate who
she was. Surprisingly a huge turning point in her life occurred when she worked as an erotic
dancer.

This portion of her journey began when she started dancing in night clubs. I was surprised that a
person with autism would be drawn into a club and moved to dance and be among so many
people. However, as I have learned through this class and book, it is not always silence and a
lack of stimuli that a person with sensory sensitivities needs. She writes:

I had never been good at sports, not only because they required intense interaction with
others but because I had always been awkward. Dancing was something different, and I
was good at it. For some reason, where noise and light had caused me pain before, the
flashing and throbbing of the clubs pushed me deep into myself. (p. 71)

As she found solace in dancing she found employment in this field and found a group of kind
and accepting women. The erotic dancers she worked with had a respect and understanding of
differences and hardship. Together they formed a familial environment that Prince-Hughes had
so long missed and they pushed her to find additional sources of refuge.

She began visiting the zoo. Finding nature and peace in her overwhelming city life. At the zoo
she found the gorillas. She sat for hours upon hours observing them and finding peace with
them. Eventually getting a job working at the zoo. Prince-Hughes describes how working with
the gorillas taught her insights into communication. When trying to determine what a gorilla was
asking of her she writes:

For the first time it occurred to me to ask for clarification when I did not understand or know what
to do. Always in the past, embarrassed by not knowing what to do and overwhelmed with the
presence of another person, I would walk away or act brashly, taking control and imposing my
own answers on the situation. That didn’t work with gorillas. (p. 135)

Then when she does not give the gorilla what he wanted and he was frustrated with her
because of this she has her first experience of:

knowing for certain what another person was thinking and feeling, and that my actions were a
direct cause of their subjective experience…As I learned their language, I began to have a
context for human communication that made it meaningful to me in a whole new way. (p. 137)

As she observes and learns how the gorillas communicate and learns to communicate with
them, she in turn learns to apply skills to human interactions. The book moves through different
emotions detailing stories and experiences for anger, concern, humor, motivation, and religious
sentiment.

Learning about herself and human interaction through this work she became inspired to learn
more about gorillas and go back to school. She found schools that would work with her so she
was able to work with mentors one-on-one. When that wasn’t possible she learn the material on
her own, so that while in class she could focus her energy on interacting with others. The
experience of having to learn at the same time as interact was too much. I am in awe of her
perseverance to learn and her ability to create coping strategies such as these.

It was not only the gorillas that taught her strategies to communicate and cope with the world.
Her partner and son had a huge effect on her life. In the later chapters of the book she recounts
the benefit of finding someone she is comfortable with, who was patient and willing to “interpret
human behavior” (p. 156).

While the book did discuss characteristics as a whole of Autism Spectrum Disorder it was
mostly defined within the author’s personal experience. However, one acknowledgement really
interests me. The author reports that often people with autism are too overwhelmed or afraid to
share their emotions or beliefs and that this prevents doctors, families, and friends alike to have
a gap in knowledge about all of the depth of characteristics and abilities Autism Spectrum
Disorder may truly encompass. “I have been forced to carefully cover and compensate, so that it
takes other people a while to notice that I have profound difficulties” (p. 32). She also describes
that it makes it more difficult to be diagnosed. In fact, it wasn’t until a relative of hers that had
some similar characteristics was diagnosed that she realized it was a possibility. Once
confronted with this knowledge she set forth to research on her own and determined the
diagnosis herself before taking her research and documentation to a doctor for an official
diagnosis. She expresses a feeling of relief at receiving her diagnosis and her fervent opinion as
to why a diagnosis is beneficial:

I can assure you that not only does the autistic person always know that they are
different, but they suffer deeply from not knowing why. While they try to come to
understand themselves without having a name for their condition, other people definitely
are labeling them - and usually without the compassion that real education would bring. I
have been told that people in question want to save the autistic person from the stigma
of being autistic. I don’t think they realize how stigmatized people with autism are -
because of their behavior, not because of any label - and if they don’t know what is
going on with themselves, their behavior isn’t likely to change. (p. 174-175)

I truly appreciate the candor and sincerity that went into this book. Reading it was educational,
inspirational, and enjoyable. I would highly recommend it friends and colleagues alike.