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English Professor Pens 'Weather Reports' on Life with Autistic Son

The realities of the "autism front" are illustrated in James Wilson's frank, funny memoir centered on his son, Sam.

Date: 4/19/2008
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
After what he calls "a lifetime of personal experience," James Wilson had more than enough material for Weather Reports from the Autism Front: A Father's Memoir of His Autistic Son.

Wilson didn't, however, plan the book during those years or even take notes along the way. The professor of English simply experienced life with his son, Sam, who's now 26 and more apt than not to poke fun at his dad's latest book. And the deceiving simplicity of the story is part of the beauty of Weather Reports, a darkly funny and brutally honest memoir centered on the realities of sharing an autistic adult's world.

James Wilson and his son, Sam, relax at a favorite South Beach vacation spot.

"I'm not organized enough to keep a journal, nor much of an anal retentive. Most days I'd just like to forget," says Wilson, whose specialized area is rhetorical and media constructions of disability. "Over the years I'd written several short magazine pieces about Sam, but it was only when I started corresponding with other adults living with the diagnosis of autism and reading their blogs that I began to truly understand Sam.

"As I say in the book, I couldn't have written the memoir when I was younger because I lacked the insight that only comes from listening to autistic people talk about the lived experience of their lives. You simply can't get this understanding by talking to medical or social work professionals or to those involved in advocacy organizations, as well-meaning as those organizations are."

The book's title reflects Sam's longtime fascination with the weather, before, as Wilson puts it, Sam "took up gangsta rap." Wilson's last book, previous to this memoir, was Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture, which he co-edited with his wife, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, a professor at Miami University. Wilson also has essays in the two leading disability studies collections, for the humanities and the social sciences respectively: Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (MLA, 2002) and The Disability Studies Reader (Routledge, 2007).

A few questions:

Q) How long was Weather Reports in the making and are you pleased with the results?

A) I wrote the book in about eight months. I included a couple of pieces I'd published earlier, most notably "The Family Gangsta," which became my first chapter.

I'm enormously proud of the book because it's informed by my scholarly work in disability studies. In fact, I call Weather Reports a research memoir since I quote about two dozen autistic adults who write blogs and maintain their own Web sites. Most of these bloggers are quite radical, viewing autism as neurodiversity, not a medical disorder. Amanda Baggs is probably the most prolific of these bloggers, though there are many others. I think it's important to let autistic people speak for themselves, instead of always being spoken for by others.

Q) How would you sum up Sam's personality in a paragraph or two?

A) Most of the time he's a chatterbox. Unlike many people on the autism spectrum, Sam talks nonstop. On the good days he's funny, feisty, making jokes, asking his repetitive weather questions, exuberant and excited about his life. On the bad days, watch out. He's sullen, edgy, ready to go off at the slightest provocation or interruption of his rituals. For Sam everything becomes a ritual, which he follows down to the exact minute.

Q) Weather Reports is full of irreverent, dark humor you make it clear early on that this is a "realistic account of life with an autistic adult" and not a treacly tribute to your autistic child. Was it important to you to put this out there, warts and all, and how did other members of your family accept that?

A) Exactly. Most autism memoirs are sentimental accounts of cute, cuddly autistic children. Sentimentality is the exact opposite of what I was striving for. In fact, my original title was "Autism with Attitude" (not a big hit with my editor, who felt some readers would be offended!). For me it was important to be realistic; otherwise I would be doing a disservice to my son and other adults living with the diagnosis of autism.  Autistic adults receive almost no media attention. It's as though autistic children fall off the face of the earth when they enter adulthood. But these children don't just disappear.  They grow up, they become adults with lives filled with the much same needs and desires that everyone else has.

Most members of my family are still speaking to me. We'll see. Not all of them have read the book.

Q) You say in the book's closing that you want for Sam what he wants: "a place where he feels comfortable, where's he accepted and valued for the wonderfully distinct person he's become." How do you deal with the fears that have to punctuate wondering what will happen to him years from now, when you're not around?

A) I remind myself that each year Sam becomes more independent and that he can do most things on his own or with minimal assistance. Every day he declares his independence in his own funny way. "I can't spend time with you," he told me the other day. "I'm aging too fast!"

Q) Your timing appears impeccable. Autism seems to be in the news everywhere, from Comedy Central's "Night of Too Many Stars: An Overbooked Benefit for Autism" fundraiser to Newsweek's recent "Growing Up With Autism" story and increasingly read blogs. Where do you get your news on autism, and how involved do you get in advocacy?

A) Yes, autism has received extensive media attention in recent months, especially after the Centers for Disease Control reported that 1 out of every 150 children will be diagnosed with autism. Since you mention Comedy Central, I have to confess that not long ago I invited myself on "The Colbert Report." In the satirical spirit of the show, I assured them that even though I've picked up some autistic behaviors from living with my son I can usually control my barking.  I ended my online application with one of my son's favorite greetings: "WOOF!" I expect to hear from Stephen at any moment.

I get news on autism from government Web sites like the CDC and NIH, as well as from autistic bloggers and autistic-run organizations like Autism Network International and Autism-Vox.
Q) How supportive and important have friends and family been as you and your immediate family navigated this journey with Sam?

A) I wish I could say that friends and family have been supportive, but with a few exceptions they really haven't. People who aren't directly touched by disability just don't understand the social aspect of disability, which includes isolation.
Q) What kind of feedback are you getting on Weather Reports and most important: What does Sam think of all this?

A) So far the feedback has been very positive from colleagues in disability studies and from the larger disability/autism community. Reaching a wider, general audience has been difficult, especially getting the book reviewed. Early on I contacted the daily newspapers in this area, but none of the newspapers have reviewed or even mentioned the book in news briefs or arts notes. I'd like to think they would be interested in a subject that affects thousands of Cincinnati area families, but apparently I'm wrong. 
Sam has mixed feelings about the memoir. On occasion he'll open the book, read a page or two, and then make a wisecrack. Usually, he chooses to ignore it and me.

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