Essay on 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime': Asperger’s Syndrome

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Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a condition that causes a difference in how one perceives and experiences the world around them. Medically, it is thought of as the impairment of the ability to learn or discern information. The difficulty those on the autism spectrum have with interacting with society is reflected in the adversity they potentially can encounter in certain situations, such as with handling emotions or communicating and expressing themselves. As a result of these difficulties, those without intellectual impairments may perceive or discriminate against those with them. However, the contemporary social model of understanding intellectual impairment seeks to change these misconceptions. The social model refers to those on the autism and intellectual impairment spectrum as neurodivergent: those whose thought processes and perception of things may differ from others. The intersectional studies of disability and Autism Spectrum Disorder embody the idea that bodily experience differs from person to person and that people, regardless of physical difference or impairment, will inevitably have different ways of going through society. In Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the protagonist Christopher (who is understood to have Asperger’s Syndrome and is on the Autism Spectrum) is challenged by his interactions with others in his life as a result of normative societal perceptions of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Christopher presents his narrative through his own eyes, allowing us to view the world as he views it in his unique way. The narrative is written in a simplistic, factual language: a stylistic approach taken by Haddon to emphasize the narrative being Christopher’s own words and thoughts. The textual clues provide insight into the differences someone on the autism spectrum might have in their thought processes from someone who may not have intellectual impairments. Understanding the individual needs of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder for support and agency allows us to further delineate what steps we can take in supporting and accommodating those with impairments. By providing a supportive and accepting environment for all people regardless of impairment or difference, we can alleviate some of the difficulties those with Autism Spectrum Disorder may face in society, and potentially even erase negative or disabling stereotypes or prejudices against those with intellectual impairments. Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time presents Christopher’s narrative as an outsider to normative society. By understanding and empathizing with Christopher, we can better understand how those with Autism Spectrum Disorder can differ, and in turn, address the discriminatory society we live in to better provide an equal and supportive environment for all.

The protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Christopher, is understood to be high-functioning on the autism spectrum and has Asperger’s Syndrome. While it is never directly stated, we can indirectly ascertain this by looking at the way he interacts with the world and with others. Christopher mentions his difficulties with recognizing facial expressions and emotions, as seen when he works with Siobhan, his teacher. “I got Siobhan to draw lots of these faces and then write down next to them exactly what they meant… and I took it out when I didn’t understand what someone was saying” (Haddon 3). Here, Christopher is understood to be having difficulty understanding people’s facial expressions when they talk, which is a sign of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome. A clue to Christopher being high-functioning on the autism spectrum is how Christopher structures his sentences and thoughts. Throughout the story, Christopher’s narrative is presented with simple, logical sentences. He forms his thoughts and words based on his idea of order and becomes uncomfortable when things don’t align with his rules. He structures his day based on things like the number of red cars in a row: “4 red cars in a row made it a Good Day, and 3 red cars in a row made it a Quite Good Day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a Super Good Day” (Haddon 47). While it is a sign of Asperger’s Syndrome that Christopher faces slight difficulty in expressing himself in long, eloquent sentences, based on the medical model of intellectual impairments, Christopher is understood to be on the high-functioning side of the autism spectrum. He is logical and clear and even demonstrates an advanced understanding of mathematics, shown by his drive to pass his A-level math exams, or how he organizes chapters in his book by prime numbers, of which he knows “every prime number up to 7,057” (Haddon 2). Uta Frith and Francesca Happe discuss in their work “Language and Communication in Autistic Disorders” how Christopher shows what they call “theory-of-mind,” which is “the ability to attribute independent mental states to self and others to explain and predict behavior” (Frith and Happe 98). Christopher demonstrates the theory of mind in the sense that he almost always attributes reason and logic to his experiences. However, this is only insofar to his simple sentences. Frith iterates that “subjects diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome do not show the striking failure on theory-of-mind tasks typical of other autistic subjects” (Frith and Happe 101), highlighting the medical model’s viewpoint that intellectual impairments are on a one-dimensional axis, with high-functioning and low-functioning people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to be two ends of the spectrum. Christopher’s lack of understanding of expressions or context coupled with his being on the “high-functioning end of autism” is what leads his narrative to present the mystery, and the solution, to the reader, before Christopher himself does. We understand that despite Christopher’s Asperger’s Syndrome, he still is very capable of thought and reason as the rest of us are, even if he goes about it differently. Utilizing the social model of autism and intellectual impairment, we can argue that Christopher is neurodivergent, rather than “high-functioning autistic.” Medically, he is diagnosed with autism for his “impairments in verbal and non-verbal communication” (Frith and Happe 98), but socially, he is an independent boy who goes about solving mysteries in his way. Rather than relegating those with mental impairments and labeling them as “disabled” intellectually, we should look to change how we perceive those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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If we look at Christopher’s interactions with people in his life, we see that many do not care to see or understand his different way of expressing himself. As seen with his violent encounter with the police officer, others do not seem to express any care for Christopher’s differences. After being discovered with the dead dog, “[the police officer] was asking too many questions” (Haddon 11) to Christopher, who began to be stressed. When the police officer reached out to Christopher, he hit him in response. The police officer’s failure to recognize Christopher’s distress and inability to communicate properly is just a part of how society often overlooks that those with intellectual impairments process things differently than others may. Ironically, Christopher himself recognizes that everyone learns differently: “Everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult, and also everyone has special needs… and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs” (Haddon 71). Christopher, recognizing his differences, understands that people learn at different speeds, and everyone has individual needs. Despite Christopher’s understanding seemingly coming from maturity, society as a whole lacks this understanding. Dara Shifrer, in a study “Stigma of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with Learning Disabilities,” states how “youth with LDs (Learning Disabilities) is deviant in that they are sometimes perceived as lazy or stupid… because of their nonnormative response to the educational institution” (Shifrer 463). Shifter argues that young people with intellectual impairments, such as Christopher, are labeled under the medical model and thought to be intellectually disabled because of their differences in learning ability. Discrimination is also a major obstacle that those with Autism Spectrum Disorder often have to face. In the novel, Christopher is discriminated against for his Asperger’s Syndrome and is thought to be not capable of taking his A-level maths despite showing extreme prodigy in the subject. “Mrs. Gascoyne didn’t want me to take [A-level maths] at first… they didn’t want to treat me differently from everyone else” (Haddon 71). Christopher faces obvious prejudice as a result of his neurodivergence. He is told that he would “only ever get a job collecting supermarket trollies” (Haddon 47), which we understand to be people assuming Christopher is incapable of thinking for himself and can only be expected to do menial work. This active discrimination against people with intellectual impairments is a large reason why society today remains so inaccessible and unaccommodating to neurodivergent people. The perpetuation of stereotypes and failure to acknowledge or understand people and their individual needs and differences creates a prejudicial and unequal world. As Shifrer puts it, “Power and stereotypes are products of culture and social structure, and locating the origins of the learning disabled label is a precursor to understanding which actors enable the learning disabled label to stigmatize” (Shifrer 465). We need to understand that the failure to acknowledge the differences of those with intellectual impairments is a product of our culture and that discrimination against neurodivergent people denies them their rights to an equal and accessible society.

Fortunately, however, if we can recognize that the problem is our society, then that implies that there is a way to potentially address this issue. We understand that the medical model is a large part of why those with intellectual impairments struggle so much in society. Labeling people with differences all under one umbrella as “different” is inherently incorrect and ironic- we acknowledge that people have differences and that they may function differently than others as a result of that difference, however, we refuse to see further than that. In “A Case for the Autistic Perspective in Young Adult Literature” Rachel F. Van Hart, author, explains how “understanding among different groups of people is fostered by awareness of each other’s perspective” (Van Hart 27). We can derive that the social model is better suited to acknowledging and understanding people’s differences. Contemporary society also rejects the idea that someone on the autism spectrum’s differences and incapabilities may lead to strengths. “Public discourse on autism… ignores the possibility that an Autism Spectrum Disorder individual’s weaknesses may also function as strengths. More recently, however, a neurodiversity model… acknowledges that many of the difficulties autistic individuals encounter are a product of ‘living in a society designed for non-autistic people’” (Van Hart 27). Van Hart is reiterating our social model to be expanded to the idea that neurodivergence is a gift, not the impairment the medical model and our current society sees it as. “The personal and social challenges faced by [ASD individuals] highlight positive aspects of their unique cognitive outlook” (Van Hart 28). Christopher also recognizes his differences as strengths. When he is explaining how he notices things about the world and is called clever, he simply responds “I wasn’t clever. I was just noticing how things were… that was just being observant” (Haddon 47). Simply by changing our viewpoint and discourse on intellectual impairment, we can much better support, and even empower neurodivergent people for their differences. By embracing a more open social model of disability, and by investing more time into understanding each other’s differences, we can create a better community in which prejudiced-against groups can be treated equally with the current norms.

Today, we have made significant efforts towards improving the quality of life of those who are treated as impaired or disabled under the currently enforced medical model of disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was an act passed for the protection against discrimination for people with disabilities. In his work “Models of Disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Richard K. Scotch works to identify what exactly has been disabling those with intellectual impairments. He finds that “disability has been defined in predominantly medical terms as a chronic functional incapacity… [and] was the natural product of their [people with Autism Spectrum Disorder] impairments” (Scotch 214). In tune with our understanding of the perpetuation of the medical model, Scotch points out that the Americans with Disabilities Act was created to address that fact. However, even with the modern attempt to introduce the social model, “the opportunities of people with disabilities are limited far more by a discriminatory environment than by their impairments” (Scotch 214). Society assumes what those with intellectual impairments are and are not capable of, and in turn, enforces its own prejudicial and often incorrect judgment onto neurodivergent people. Denied opportunities based on these assumptions, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and those with intellectual differences are unfairly discriminated against. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeks to end this discrimination by preventing businesses or groups from denying people opportunities to work or isolating them based on disability. Scotch reaffirms that “the ADA can be seen as… a policy commitment to the social inclusion of people with disabilities” (Scotch 215). While it is a small step, the ADA embraces the social model of disability and advocates for the inclusion of neurodivergent people. We can further take steps in improving our prejudicial society as the ADA has by individually reaching out and getting to understand others, regardless of differences.

Acknowledging that everyone is different is something we’re taught in modern social discourse from a young age. Yet people with intellectual impairment still face discrimination for their differences, whether it be actively being prevented from accessing certain opportunities, or unintentionally discriminating against neurodivergent people by labeling them all under one umbrella. If society as a whole were to recognize the different needs that each individual has and understand that neurodivergence is just a different way of thinking, we would already take great strides in providing a less hostile environment for people with intellectual differences to be in. We can delineate what steps we can take to better enable those with impairments by embracing a social model rather than a medical one regarding disability. This is reflected in many works involved with the discourse of intellectual impairment, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher is, despite his Asperger’s Syndrome, clever and intelligent. His narrative provides readers a greater understanding of how, despite his intellectual difference, he is simply going about life and experiencing things in a different way than others may. He turns adversity into strengths and utilizes his neurodivergence to arrive at an answer to a mystery he discovers and solves himself. Accompanying him on his journey, we can gain a better appreciation and respect for the viewpoints of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder. If society as a whole were to recognize the need to embrace a social model and change, to work to end discrimination and labeling of people on the autism spectrum, and to take time to understand and draw parallels between oneself and someone with intellectual differences, we could improve the quality of life for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and recreate society to be fair, equal, and unprejudiced for all.

Works Cited

    1. Frith, Uta, and Francesca Happe. “Language and Communication in Autistic Disorders.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, vol. 346, no. 1315, 1994, pp. 97–104. JSTOR,
    2. Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Alexandria Library, 2007.
    3. Scotch, Richard K. “Models of Disability and the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, vol. 21, no. 1, 2000, pp. 213–222. JSTOR,
    4. Shifter, Dara. “Stigma of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with Learning Disabilities.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 54, no. 4, 2013, pp. 462–480. JSTOR,
    5. Van Hart, Rachel F. “A Case for the Autistic Perspective in Young Adult Literature.” The English Journal, vol. 102, no. 2, 2012, pp. 27–36. JSTOR, 


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