Realm of the Senses

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

CHILDREN ARE SHOUTING AND LAUGHING nearby as Donna Williams perches on the crumbling foundations of Hadleigh Castle, a Norman ruin overlooking the Thames estuary near London. As the noisy group draws closer, Williams suddenly becomes agitated. Wringing her hands and struggling to speak, she explains that she is "shutting down." The children's high-pitched voices are overstimulating her senses, triggering a shocklike state that makes her unable to express herself or understand what she sees and hears.

Williams, 29, suffers from autism, a baffling neurological disorder that affects about four out of every 10,000 children. As portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man, autistics frequently exhibit repetitive movements, such as rocking, obsession with routines and difficulty relating to other people. Williams is considered an unusually high-functioning autistic, and although her hypersensitivity to everyday sensory stimuli-shaking hands with a stranger, making eye contact, even being exposed to indoor light-can provoke shutdowns, she is able to live self-sufficiently and hold a simple job. In her words, "I am a small computer trying to keep up with an overload of information with a limited amount of processing power."

But when Williams put that processing power to work, she achieved a small miracle: a riveting best-selling autobiography that describes how autism feels from the inside. Her book Nobody Nowhere describes two battles, she says-"a battle to keep out the world and a battle to join it."

Williams was working as a secretary at Whittington Hospital in London three years ago when she began to search for the key to her bewildering and chaotic emotions. She went out, bought a cheap typewriter, sat down and began to chronicle her life from the beginning. Four weeks later she was finished. "It was like a vomit," she says. "There was no planning, no thinking. The process was an automatic one, and it frightened me. But my life frightened me much more, and I wanted the answers."

Williams's autobiography is by turns fascinating and harrowing. Born and raised in Australia, the second of three children, she was sent to a "special needs" school when she was 3. Although a staff member suggested Williams might be autistic, her parents-whom she declines to name-apparently ignored the diagnosis. (Years later her father told her, "You were a bit funny when you were small.") Despite her parents' denial, Williams's behavior was classically autistic in many respects. She was echolalic, endlessly parroting other people's sentences; she experienced physical contact as pain, and she would rub her eyes furiously, losing herself in "bright spots of fluffy color." From an early age, says Williams, she was hit and verbally abused by her mother, who was frustrated and embarrassed by her daughter's bizarre behavior. Her father, she suggests, was more sympathetic to her problems.

By age 3, Williams started developing alternate personalities to help her survive. One of them was Willie, a child with "hateful glaring eyes, a pinched-up mouth, rigid corpselike stance, and clenched fists," who stamped and spit. The other was Carol, a charming, cooperative little girl who could act normal. "Willie was a born scholar," whose analytical nature enabled her to graduate from an Australian university, says Williams. Carol brought her friends and jobs.

Not long after completing university, Williams decided on impulse to go to London. She found herself a small apartment and a job and was in the middle of writing her story when she chanced on her own diagnosis. Searching in the library for a clue to her disorder, she discovered a book about autism and was stunned at the similarity of its symptoms to her own.

When Williams finished writing, she brought her notes to Dr. Sebastian Kraemer, a child psychiatrist at Whittington Hospital. "She just walked into my room," he recalls. "I asked, 'Do you want therapy?' and she said, 'No, 1 want you to look at my story. I want you to tell me why I'm like I am.' "

After reading her manuscript, Kraemer, intrigued, sent it to Frances Tustin, a specialist in autism who urged Williams to publish it. She agreed. "I didn't want anyone to go through what I had," she says. "I felt that if it changed things for others like me, then it was worth it."

Although there is no known cure for autism, treatments range from medication to behavioral therapies. But for Williams, the autobiography itself turned out to be the best therapy. "I felt whole for the first time in my life when I read my own book," she says. Supporting herself with profits earned from Nobody Nowhere, she has finished a second book, Somebody Somewhere, about "picking up the pieces after the war." She also paints, composes music and works occasionally with autistic children. And she has a close friend now, a man with autism less severe than her own. But I he idea of marriage and children alarms her. "Do you really think marriage would be relevant to my life?" she asks. "I still try to remember to eat three times a day. Still," she adds, "the war is over. I am not Carol or Willie. I am me."


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