Alex Garish knows how to make a dramatic entrance. The 11-year-old glides into the dining room of her family’s home in northwestern Montreal, arms outstretched like a plane, making a soft whooshing sound. She dips and turns abruptly before coming in for a smooth landing on the wicker chair in front of the family computer. With a few flicks of her fingers, she launches an animated video about circles, squares, and other geometric shapes, and is immediately engrossed. Now and then, she turns to glance furtively over her shoulder at a visitor, seated at a table behind her.
Alex was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and didn’t talk until she was over 4. Today, she speaks only in simple two- to three-word sentences. Standardized tests reveal that she is mildly cognitively impaired. She has trouble bathing and using the toilet by herself. She cannot tell time, and needs help crossing the street. When she is upset, she throws violent tantrums, often hurling objects across the room or flinging herself onto the floor.
On the other side of the St. Lawrence river in Montreal lives John Walsh, a 13-year-old boy who was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and, like Alex, was slow to develop speech. (John’s mother, Mary Walsh, asked that we not use their real names, as John does not acknowledge that he has autism.) But unlike Alex, John shows no signs of cognitive impairment. At his school, a mainstream one for typically developing children, he excels at reading and math. He uses public transportation on his own and can even give strangers directions on the city’s complex subway system. John easily carries on conversations, though he tends to take things literally, and certain phrases, such as ‘catch the bus,’ trip him up.