An Autistic Friendship

by Dinah KC Murray

1995, “An Autistic Friendship” in Psychological Perspectives in AutismDurham conference Psychological perspectives in autism

This paper forms part of Art… a Positive Necessity of Life (2013)

The Background

About five years ago, I came to autism as a linguist with a developed account of the role of language in thinking, and a notion that my account of the ordinary workings of minds might be useful for understanding the dysfunction of autism. Since then, I have been trying to find out if I might be right, partly by getting to know some children with autism, one in particular – Ferenc Virag, now sixteen – quite well. I have got to know him on the basis of friendship, as the head of his special school, Bert Furze, requested.

When Bert urged me to befriend one of his pupils it suited my own intentions very well – though I wasn’t at-all sure how to go about it. Not being an experimental psychologist, I wanted to be able to observe a person with autism behaving naturally, including observing how they related to my non-intervening presence. In its own way, it has been an experiment. Happily I found someone whose interests I share in Ferenc. We both like nature, light, refraction and reflection, find beauty in them. We both like controlling material: making things, melting things, making sparks fly; we both relish the potential of computer graphics. When he is frustrated Ferenc sometimes injures himself quite badly, biting his thumb till it bleeds, gashing his forehead, etc. He files his teeth, eats insects, and tests batteries with his tongue. He is an elective bilingual mute, recently assessed as understanding up to four-word utterances. Though he will not speak he uses a wide range of Makaton signs, only some of which I understand.

Most of this paper is devoted to an anecdotal account of my relationship with him. I make no attempt to disguise his identity, because he is an artist – an animation virtuoso – and because he has given his consent to the publication of the anecdotes below.

Some of Ferenc’s leatherwork

Autistic and Non-autistic Minds: Speculations

In my view, a helpful angle on the difference between an autistic and a non-autistic mind is that while most of us have many co-active interests which are densely interconnected (See figure 1), someone with autism has great difficulty in maintaining more than one at a time”. Ordinary minds can cope easily with context, and even with a context full of active and interacting people. Autistic minds are radically attention- tunnelled, or monotropic (See figure 2). Events inside their attention tunnels may cause overload, events outside their attention tunnels will tend not to be integrated. Isolated areas of interest cannot supply sufficient inter-interest connection for the normal digestion-like process of spreading cognitive effects to occur’”

So, if something diverts attention from one of those deep attention tunnels, its effect will be abrupt, and it may provoke an extreme or shocked reaction. In ordinary social intercourse, we constantly use speech to seize attention and invade each other’s minds. For a rigidly monotropic1 ie. autistic, person on the receiving end of such speech, it will function as challenging behaviour, in being both attention-seeking and extremely hard to handle. (“Shared attention” is a complex concept, which would bear more detailed examination than is appropriate here.)

Unlike typical infants, those with autism cannot easily develop those richly connected systems of interests which make for resilience in the face of diversity. Change tends to bewilder and alarm them. While we rapidly build fuzzy networks of networks of networks, a monotropic individual will take as long to develop any interconnections at-all between interests – though interest-internal connections may become indefinitely complex in some cases. All their interests will be strongly modular or enclosed lv- In particular, having an isolated lexicon or word pool deprives them of a major integrating force: word-relations normally spanthe whole range of interests, and impose a degree of immutable structure on it.

Autistic drive for coherence, as strong as any, is thus confined to a local rather than central sphere of operation”. Some monotropic individuals may be capable of embracing topics which are broad-ranging as well as involving a mass of detailed knowledge, so long as there is a strong enough boundary condition on the topic. In such a case, they may have a superior grasp of the whole of it than a typical person does.

The Relationship

For the last three years, plus, I’ve been a fairly regular companion to Ferenc, sharing his interests, abetting them wherever possible, commenting on his actions in an encouraging sort of way, and paying them close attention. It is very evident that he likes all this – and he has become much more attuned to my concerns, much more interested in communicating with me as the years have passed. I believe a particular feature of our relationship has been substantially responsible for this: I have always behaved cotropicatfy towards him. Cotropicality is relating to a person by letting their interests guide yours, in speech and deed.


9/92: It is one of our regular Friday afternoons. Ferenc is being made to complete a project before having his free time with me. It is all done but the writing of his name, which he really does not want to do. He looks across at me, meets my eyes for a moment, and pushes paper and pencil across the table to me. I say, “I’m sorry, Ferenc, but I think I might get in trouble with Jo if I do it for you” (which was true). Immediately he takes the paper back and gets on with writing his name. Several times since then I’ve

” I am using “rigidly monotropic” for autism, because a soft, slow but mobile monotropism seems to characterise Down’s syndrome – a thought triggered by a comment from Marian Sigman, and confirmed by my own observation. It is correlated with a generally very different set of behaviours, both in the model and in people. had to explain to him that I’ll get in trouble of some kind or other if I go along with his wishes: he nearly always cooperates without further ado.

92/937 There is a photo up in the school hall of Ferenc being given a prize at the Chelsea Flower show for work in a local community garden. He takes me to the hall to show it to me.

5/93 I was joining Ferenc’s class for an outing. Teaching staff were awaited, and late. The children had nothing to do, so a helper organised them all into doing something most of them quite enjoy, ie making some music with the odd instrument chosen from a crate. As so often, Ferenc is standing right back in a hope-not-to be-noticed stance, his head slightly down, his limbs huddled. The helper rounds him up, he bites his thumb furiously and goes over as he’s been told, and sits down. He looks across at me, gazing at him with I suppose a look of intense fellow feeling, since that was how I felt, and he smiles my first smile from him. And I smile back while he holds my gaze for a moment longer. The helper urges him to pick up an instrument and he picks a triangle without fuss, and – urged again – gives it a blow and stops. I say to him, “Maybe you can enjoy yourself?” and with a touch of a smile again, he starts to play. Early 94 Ferenc is using a soldering iron. He is waiting for a drop of solder to fall from its tip, but he is holding the iron horizontal. I say “If your reduce the surface area…”and before I can complete the sentence, Ferenc has tilted the iron to a vertical.

94 Ferenc proves to have a real flair for computer animation; we decide to record his work by dumping every screen he creates – including every movement of the cursor – straight on to video cassette. The first time, we succesfully make two copies, one for him, one for us. Communications between him and Mike – my colleague whose contribution to this project has been central” – are excellent from the start, since Mike is concerned only to help him understand and control what’s going on.

The second time, the technology isn’t quite sorted: there is only one recording (when this time we had meant to make three – as we succesfully do next).. I say, “Oh, Ferenc, would it be all right if I took this home with me and gave it back to you on Monday morning?” (the day after the morrow). He shakes his head vigorously. Feeling very vexed, I grit my teeth and leave the room. Meanwhile, as I learn later, Mike goes up to Ferenc, who is holding the succesful cassette, and eyeballs him with, “Ferenc, you know Dinah really really wants it too…”. The next moment, Ferenc finds me in the kitchen, clutching the cassette to him, he leans towards me, and makes an obviously strenuous attempt to extend the cassette in my direction. I say, “Oh, is it all right then, if I take it home…?” He shakes his head as vigorously as ever. I shrug, and tell him nevermind – resigned to never seeing it again.

Next time, we succesfully (largely thanks to the help of Stuart Powell) set up a pair of recordings direct from the computer, plus an outside camcorder filming Ferenc himself, and our interactions with him. At the end of the session, when I offer him his cassette, he refuses it, indicating that it is mine. I am very touched, as I have been when earlier he has pushed across the table towards me, the last four Ferrero Rochers (until then I’d had just one).

7/94 We are travelling in my car together, a forty mile journey. Just as we are getting out of London a traffic jam forms, he bites his thumb, S grind my teeth and cuss. There’s worse to come: at the next junction tape is stretched across the road, everyone is sent either left or right with no guidance and no explanation. Once again, we cuss in our different ways. I explain, as we crawl along with half the other lost cars, that we’ll just have to take the next turning going the right way, and I show him the map and the road we’ve had to leave, with our destination clearly visible on it. From then on (without reading the map) until we rejoin the road, Ferenc is totally confident about direction, even when I’m hesitating, and is eagerly nudging me and pointing out impending junctions. With a little thumb-biting from him and a little tooth-gnashing from me, we both manage to keep our cool and get there in the end.

7/94 We are walking across a long lawn together; a cat steps out to join us, I stroke it for a moment, Ferenc reaches down and feels its tail briefly; we walk on accompanied by the cat. Unusually ! break the silence with a thought I’ve often had, “Ferenc,” I say, “I often think that ordinary people, people like me, are more like dogs, while people like you, people with autism, are more like cats” then I turn towards him and ask him if he knows what I mean. He nods firmly, then looks for a moment hesitant – suggesting to me that perhaps he felt he understood the cat analogy himself (they own a cat) but wasn’t sure about other people and dogs.

8/94 Ferenc and ! and my dog have joined a bunch of ramblers for a camping trip along Hadrian’s Wall. There are no chairs and for thirty-six hours he won’t sit down. Eventually solicitous persuasion by a number of people gets him going purposefully off to get the large wooden box which offers much the most luxurious seat in camp. He finds a space beside the fire and sits down with the rest of us. On previous nights his fascination with the fire – especially his desires to melt plastic in it, and to make sparks fly – has caused some tension. Ruth has cleverly twigged that if he is allowed to find a safe place to do it, he will be happy for hours on end striking glowing brands so they shoot sparks out into the blackness. Tonight he is trying to compromise with the plastic-melting, and has enclosed tiny scraps in foil before putting them in the fire. Unfortunately even with this much care, they smell as they melt, and Ferenc finds himself being shouted at. After cricking his head furiously sideways (as though he could shake the din out, like water in the ear) he jabs a finger up his nose, producing a terrfic instant gush of blood. At once the mood of opprobrium directed at him is transformed into sympathetic concern.

He and I go mushrooming, him having found a container for the purpose unprompted. When it is full, we hurry back, as we get closer, he pulls ahead, almost breaking into a run, and (again unprompted) he proffers them to the others.

For two nights he hardly lies down, gets no sleep. He won’t enter the tent set up for him, he won’t lie down in the one he’s agreed to share with two others. On the third night we get him to help set up a tent close to mine and to lay out his sleeping bag in it. At around One am. rain starts to fall, everyone heads for their tents. Ferenc stands between his and mine, immobile. I beg him to bend down and get in, I show him that it’s nice in there, I point out that ifs raining harder and harder, I urge him to just bend his knees, to let me take his shoes off, to think how tired he is. He is adamant. I say, “Ferenc, I’m exhausted, and I can’t lie down until you do”. He takes his shoes off and lies down. We are at an English Heritaged Roman site. In some fine gravel with a narrow plank he has picked up, Ferenc very carefully inscribes a pattern, frequently standing back to look at the effect, and touching it up here and there. I admire what he has done, and say so. Later on, back at the camp site, he and I have walked down to take a look at the sunset view across the distant hills and clouds. He taps me in his urgent way, and makes a sweeping pointing gesture at this wonderful sight; I say, “Yes, it’s amazing – light and shade.” Then I add, “Hey, Ferenc, you know the picture you made earlier in the gravel?” he assents, “I thought that was all about light and shade?” and he gives me a most decisive nod.

10/ 94 Due to events beyond our control, it’s our first Friday together for several weeks. I usually arrive in the school by soon after 1.15, today it’s nearer half past before I dash breathlessly through the school gates. Sheilah and Bojena both let me know how impatiently I’ve been awaited. They’d pointed out to Ferenc that if he wanted to make sure I was coming, if he would just be willing to use speech, he could phone my home and check. He has, apparently, seriously considered this possibility. By the time I’ve learnt all this I’m in the Leavers’ Room and he’s on his feet, grinning all over his face, and out the door with me following him, going to the technology room. There he single-mindedly ignores everything but the (very safe, well-designed) electrical equipment on which he has been experimenting in my company since last term.

One of the most interesting things we’ve discovered together has been how to make a glowing ‘element’ which stays satisfactorily hot without tripping the safety mechanismand cutting out the current. Different lengths and types of wire have been explored along with variations of voltage, quite systematically. Another interesting thing we both enjoy is the way sparks fly when currents clash. One week when we are exploring these attributes, Ferenc lights up a whole sequence of tiny light bulbs with a circuit partly made out of a triangle from the music set. One week, he spends a lot of time drawing smouldering lines on a piece of wood. I point out to him that what he’s made is using the same technique as is used in making a soldering iron hot. He looks across at me with a, That is extraordinarily interesting! Now I understand! expression.

12/94 It is the schoo! holidays – three days before Christmas – I have promised Ferenc that we’ll go back to Cardfields at last. When I pick him up (from his respite centre) he greets me with the sign C – very urgently – “Yes! we’re going to Cardfields,” I say, and a look of satisfaction spreads across his face. When we arrive, we are both struck at once by the new wooden walkway built out over the large pond. Ferenc wants to go on it at once, but comes without demur when i say we’d better say Hello to the residents and check that it’s OK. After a quick visit to the dining room – where Ferenc is a bit agitated by the new table cloths (probably the first new ones in ten or fifteen years) – we go back to the frozen pond.

For two and a half hours we break off the largest pieces of ice we can. Ferenc very quickly develops an excellent technique for the purpose: he finds a long stick and uses it to press down on the ice as far out as he can reach, soon a crack develops and i manoeuvre the latest piece out of the water. Each one is broken into small pieces by one method or another – careful scraping, assiduous hacking, throwing, and eventually (though still not exclusively) by bringing them down on the top of his head. He pings several of the ice sheets, inviting me to hear them, holds them up to the sun and looks at the light through them, bounces small shards along what ice remains, finally whirls every worthwhile piece left into the air, where they almost seem to float as they spin. After that, at my request, he takes me to the place in the field where, months previously he had neatly trampled out a corn line (see photo). I’ve asked him if he remembers where the sun was when he made the line, and he has nodded decisively. As I’d tentatively guessed, the line pointed at where the sun had been, “So, you made the line point at the sun?” – another decisive Yes. When I look at the photo of his line, later on, I realise that its slight deviation from straightness is a function of the sun’s small movement across the sky while he carefully trampled it out.

Late 94 Ferenc and I go off to look at the glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. At Archway, Ferenc takes me to the place on the platform where you can look down the tunnel, curving off into the darkness. He gestures at it, making sure that I am sharing his attention, that I am focussed on the same object of interest. We gaze for a moment, then walk back down the platform. Now he points eagerly down betwen the lines to where the rodents scurry busily about, polishing off all edible litter, “Oh yes,” I say, then add, “they’re careful not to touch the electric rail”. At the Museum, we’re a bit disappointed with the glass display: it’s far too cluttered, nothing has a chance to be looked at properly. Ferenc clearly finds it too much, and we both repair rather soon to the restaurant downstairs. There he queues up in a perfectly orderly way, only spoiling the appearance of normality when he sniffs the pastries. I get him a pastry, with a helping of cream, and a fizzy drink; I have a pot of tea. By the time I’m ready for my first sip of tea, he has polished off everything and is asking for more. I look at my money and say, “Will you go and get it, if I give you the money?” and he shakes his nead firmly. So 1 say, “Well, then i’m afraid you’ll have to do without, because i want to just sit here and drink my tea.” He gets to his feet, takes enough money for another pastry, and goes over to the counter to pick one up – actually, to pick two up, which caused me to intervene briefly. Then he takes it over to the till, shows it to the cashier, hands over the money, waits for the change, and comes back to the table with the pastry. He had only once done such a thing before, and that under great pressure with nagging at every step, I tell him, “Well done,” add, “There’s all sorts of things you could do, you know, Ferenc?” but don’t get an answer to that.

Next we cross the road to the Science Museum, which also has a gallery devoted to glass and glass-making. We find it altogether more satisfying than its arty neighbour’s. At Ferenc’s insistence, we watch right through the scratchy looped video, dated 1979, of the process of glass-making in a foundry.

On the way back, we are waiting for the pedestrian light to come on at a crossing near the school. A stranger asks me a question, and I don’t notice when the green man finally lights up. But Ferenc does, and nudges me anxiously. His general appearance when crossing roads is always of enclosed unawareness of the scene around. After this, when we are out together I sometimes point out to him how much freer he could be if he would iearn to cope with crossing roads.

Christmas 1994 I bring Ferenc to my home to show him our superbly decorated, very tall tree. He glances at it extremely briefly, then averts his eyes, “Is it too much?” I ask -“Yes!” he nods decisively.

Late Jan 95 I have found a local glassworks, where they are willing for us to visit one Thursday afternoon. As we approach it, I tell him that it’s likely he won’t be able actually to do anything, though it’s just possible he will. He seems to take this in.

We step into a large room with furnaces, kilns, and strange implements in it. Ferenc is longing to explore everything; I say, “I’m sorry, we’re just going to have to wait until there’s someone here to tell us what we can touch”. He just about brings himself to refrain from then on, but the minutes do drag by. Eventually I call up some stairs and a kindly admin person – probably she with whom I’d arranged the visit – comes down and starts explaining things to us. Ferenc listens intently to everything she says, looking at the objects whose uses she is describing. He has spotted a stack of carefully ordered and labelled, coloured glass pieces, and he takes her over to those to have them explained. He also wants to have one, but I tell him they’re part of the process, and not hers to give. In another room wheels for glass-polishing/grinding are spinning round, while an artisan shapes a stopper on one of them, which Ferenc watches intently. When she stops, he seizes one of the many plain glass stoppers awaiting their finishing touches, and is allowed to set it against the turning file. He holds it with his usual steady hand, purposefully and smoothly making it into an almost perfectly rectangular squared- off section at each end.

The news comes through that the afternoon’s glassworking had commenced in the foundry, and Ferenc stops his filing without too much reluctance. For the next hour and a half, we watch the team of three perform their subtle glass-heating dance, which culminates in a great coloured bubble being squeezed into a mould. Ferenc manages to stay out of people’s way whilst staying close to the processes they’re engaged in. When he’s told that he’s not going to be able to work on any softened glass himself, he takes it very well. But he acts like lightning when an opportunity comes to do things to a small piece of still molten glass that gets dumped. He spots a piece of broken brick and presses it carefully down in time to impress the cooling blob.

Early March 1995

There has been a light fall of snow, which has settled outside the London basin of warmer air. The Leavers’ Class is going to St Alban’s for the day, to find the snow. When we get there, before us is a great expanse of untouched white. Almost at once, Ferenc begins rolling a snowball along until it’s too big to roll. He then goes off about twenty feet and starts to roll another ball towards the first. That gets packed into place while I get some more. The others go off to see sites while we keep building. It isevidently not to be a snow person; once sufficent mass is in place, Ferenc starts to shape a four-cornered structure, with flat, slightly sloping sides. ! keep the supplies of snow coming in, and find a long straight stick I think might be useful. At once, Ferenc uses the stick in a wide sweeping motion to flatten off the sides. Our time is limited and we work solidly without a break for nearly an hour and a half. When time runs out, the structure is complete. It is a solid plinth of packed snow about four by four feet at its base, about three foot high and three by three on top. We get the others to take a look; Ferenc briefly climbs up onto it (it easily bears his weight). His pride in his achievement is palpable.

March 1995

At School Assembly, I show Harborough the film Mike Lesser and I have made with Ferenc: all of our names Copyright on the title page. Ferenc (who was not particularly interested when I played it through for him soon after we’d made it) watches it all with great intensity, and rushes over to me as soon as it ends, making the Makaton sign for “more”. There had been no indication from him in aES those months, that he was currently aware of ever having had a good time doing animation. I promise him to write to his parents to fix seeing him at the coming weekend. So, five days later I pick him up in Hackney and bring him back to my place. We head straight upstairs to the computer. After a little help from my son, we have the animation program running, and I leave Ferenc on his own with the computer, while I hoover the stairs. When I go in, after about half an hour, he has written a thirty-two frame abstract animation with flying discs and lines hurtling in and out of each other. I congratulate him and make sure it is saved, then go on with the housework. Next time I go in, I find he has integrated his short film with my son Fergus’s steadily revolving mathematically derived animation, and added to his own some clear references to Fergus’s independently generated sequence.


In our model, there is no reason why Others shouldn’t become established in a person’s imagination at any stage in their development. My existence is clearly planted firmly in Ferenc’s awareness, so that what may affect me can affect him. How much thatis due to my consistent cotropicality we cannot know. But Mike’s cotropical computer support seemed to have an almost immediate effect on Ferenc’s attitude towards him. In fact, don’t we all like to have other people address our interests? And don’t we all – sooner or later – discover how irritatingly distracting other people and their talk can be?In this respect us typicals are the slow learners. It has been extremely interesting and enjoyable for me, getting to know Ferenc. Below is a summary of what I have learnt:

Planned and purposeful behayiour is displayed over and over again. In my view, the potential to incorporate information from a wide range of interests is all that it lacks vis-a-vis a typical person’s capacity for imaginative forethought. Anyone who has seen one of Ferenc’s animations can see that forethought is involved in their creation.

Inventiveness. exploration, creativity just need a safe material environment supplied for them to be prominent features of his behaviour.

Understanding of complex procedures –
(a) on the computer: he has a much better knowledge of the animation program than I do;
(b) in the world: he had no problem anticipating the moves of the three glass-blowers. I believe that when motivated to do so he could master lengthy sequences.

Excellent spatial and physicaI grasp of predictable behaviours – exemplified in his keenly and efficiently exercised capacity to control those behaviours; from the precision of his touch and the minute scale he works on when using the electrical set to his workmanlike construction of the snow plinth, from his swiftly adept manipulation of the ice to his equally adept manipulation of spatial variables via a professional animation program.

Desire for shared attention – he frequently points out to me what interests him; as he does also to any staff-member at the school who is tuned In to him; if my attention has wandered at one of our Friday sessions, he will sometimes turn my head back; he evidently relished sharing with me, the marvellous, brilliant, windswept, view along Hadrian’s Wail, frequently making an encompassing gesture towards it to make sure I was also taking it in.

Self-awareness; he gazes avidly at photos of himself; he looks in mirrors, especially at his teeth; he photocopies his grimace (see illustration); he took me with him to the school hall to show me a photo of himself being awarded a prize at a flower show; he generally appreciates people appreciating his creations – he shows them to me and he shows them to the staff he likes (though never I think to any of the other pupils, unless urged to do so at Assembly); the shrug he has developed in the last year or so seems to me to indicate an awareness of his own limitations, a resignation to imperfect control – which is surely an essential aspect of self-awareness?

His clear interest in hearing the anecdotes above, suggests a thirst for information concerning his selfhood – though these general conclusions proved not to hold his attention (see below). Awareness of others’ interests: (a) his repeated willingness to let considerations of unwelcome effects on my interests influence his behaviour (b) his remembering not to finish the Fererro Rochers after many hours, with no conscious hint from me, nor any reason for him to believe I would make any attempt to pressurise him (c) his decision to give me his copy of the latest video he’d made, weeks after he’d had Mike tell him I’d really really have liked to keep that sole copy (I’m inferring a reason here, which may be quite wrong) (d) his presentation of the mushrooms to be used for everyone, when we were camping Understanding of regular, sometimes complex, cotropical speech:! never talk down to him, and communication is usually evident. On one occasion, he was waiting for a drop to fa!l off his soldering iron, which he was holding horizontally. I said, “If you reduce the surface area…” and before I had finished speaking he had turned it to vertical – completing my thought with pragmatic competence (or was it just chance?),

When I read out the anecdotes above to Ferenc, I apologised for it, and explained that I needed him to listen and see if he remembered what I remembered. I also explained that I needed to know if it was all right if other people read it. He seemed keen to hear, and attended closely (though S later abandoned an attempt to read him these general condusions: they did not hold his attention – not concrete enough? or perhaps too densely written?).

Throughout, I stuck fairly closely to my text, simplifying only occasionally, getting regular nods to my memory checks. About halfway through, I asked him is he was just nodding because it was easier. He shook his head. When asked if he knew what it meant, he signalled decisively that he understood “compromise”.

Thanks are due, as always, to Mike Lesser for his stimulating and critical contribution over many years. This year, I have special thanks for him because he’s devoted so much time and energy to furthering Ferenc’s computer animation, and to devising ways of recording it. As well as that, he and Robert Tasher have been kind enough to produce the sketches of monotropic and polytropic interest systems that I needed.

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