Primal Wisdom

updated 06/14/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/14/2004 01:00AM

Dawn Prince-Hughes remembers well the moment she looked into another pair of eyes and felt something she had never felt before—a sense of kinship. She was 21, and the eyes staring back at her belonged to a 275-lb. gorilla named Nina. "For the first time," she says of that 1985 encounter at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, "I felt like I was meeting people like me."

Prince-Hughes, now 40, is an adjunct professor of anthropology. She also has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that impairs her ability to relate to others. Because of sensory overload, she had trouble reading faces, decoding emotions or keeping up conversations. "You're overwhelmed," she says. "Eye contact can be very difficult."

Undiagnosed as a child, she couldn't explain why she found the monotony of the nightly news theme more comforting than a hug from her mother or how a brush of rough wool could throw her into a rage. Eventually her problems led her to drop out of school and become homeless. "I was a waste as far as people on the street were concerned," she says now. "People would walk by me and thought I was going to go nowhere."

But as she writes in Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism, her new memoir, her zoo visit "aligned my soul." Says Prince-Hughes: "When I turned the corner and looked at the gorillas, it changed my life. It was that dramatic."

How? Humans, says Prince-Hughes, "are going at light speed." But the gorillas' slow gestures, their predictability and reluctance to make full eye contact is "very subtle socially. I didn't feel I had to connect with them in the ways I do with human people."

Growing up in Carbondale, Ill., relating to people was all but impossible for her. Her parents, Ron Prince, a heating and air-conditioning serviceman, and Joyce, a homemaker, "didn't know what it was [I had], and they didn't know what to do," Prince-Hughes says. Highly intelligent but a poor performer in school, she began drinking in seventh grade in an attempt to numb herself. In high school, when she came out as a lesbian, students tormented her by calling her "a freak." She quit school at 16 and spent five years wandering homeless all over the U.S. before moving to Seattle and signing on as a dancer in a strip bar—where the lack of direct contact, pulsing music and dimmed lights soothed her.

Hungry for contact with nature, Prince-Hughes made her fateful trip to the zoo after getting her first paycheck. Seeing Nina and the others, she says, "I felt the anxiety coming out of me."

Karen Zelan, a psychotherapist who has corresponded with Prince-Hughes since last year, has worked with autistic patients since 1956. She says that her own patients are often drawn out by animals: Like autistic interactions, "gorilla socializing is very on-again, off-again," says Zelan. "They make very little noise and are very gentle."

For her part, Prince-Hughes was inspired to finish her education after visiting the gorillas almost every day for a month. In 1987 she began college work toward her bachelor's and eventually started working, volunteering and researching part-time at the zoo. She completed her Ph.D. by correspondence through a university in Switzerland and in 2000 was appointed an adjunct professor at Western Washington University, where she researches issues including ape culture.

Despite her success, it never occurred to Prince-Hughes that the challenges she had overcome stemmed from a diagnosable condition. That changed when she fell in love with Tara Hughes, an English professor, in 1994. "Tara saw the potential in me," she says. She also saw the fits of rage and told Prince-Hughes to get help or their relationship would end. In 2000 Dawn saw a psychologist who diagnosed Asperger's. She began taking medication to control anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior (performing actions, like washing a dish, in sets of three) and sought support from other autistic adults. She also learned to respect the demands of her disorder: After she speaks to groups about her condition, she sometimes goes home, turns on the clothes dryer and lies on top of it under a red light. "The repetitive motion, coupled with the warmth, is womblike," she explains.

Today, she says, she enjoys life's simple pleasures: "I love to cook and take care of my son." Five years ago Tara gave birth to Teryk. (Dawn selected the anonymous sperm donor, nixing any candidates who didn't indicate a love of animals.) The gorillas are apart of her family too; after an absence of almost four years, Prince-Hughes visited the Woodland Park Zoo in 2002. When she approached the glass partition, she says, "the whole family came to say hello. There were little gorilla kids I hadn't met yet. The adults brought the kids over to introduce me—it was really touching."

Allison Adato. Marion Daniel in Seattle

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