Author, sculptor, musician, composer, autism consultant, and, probably most important to her, Donna. Born in Australia, Donna Williams showed signs of autism from infancy. Her abusive family used this to hurl objects and insults (wonk, blonk, spastic) at her. Forced to adapt early to this hostile environment, she used echolalia and echopraxia to develop defenses resembling, but not identical to,7 multiple personalities. Willie was intellectual and dominating. Carol was social and "adoptable". Donna was buried behind both of them, although they made her able to appear much more "high functioning" than she would have looked otherwise.
She began to write as a preteen, beginning with lists and progressing to poetry.5 She struggled with the outside world -- trying to understand it, trying to keep it out, trying to join it. After years of traveling the world, abusive relationships, and homelessness, she ended up in college, and trying to understand where she fit into the world. Along the way, she met a few people who were similar to her. She began to question why she was how she was.
She at first attributed her differences to growing up uneducated with a working class background, which still left too many unanswered questions. Then, she came across the word autism. She found out that she had been called autistic as a child. She started looking for answers, and wrote out a manuscript of her life in an unstoppable and automatic state of mind. She intended to destroy it, but the doctor who saw it thought that it should be published.1 This manuscript became the book Nobody Nowhere. She became one of the first autistic people to have an autobiography published. Many other unknowing auties have opened her book and found someone like themselves for the first time.
Since then, she has published several more books, married twice, moved to Great Britain and back, written and performed an album of music, co-founded Autism Network International, created several life-sized sculptures, took up painting, and striven hard for authenticity. She has formulated a theory of autistic development whereby people go from the stage of "right brain" sensing to "left brain" literal interpretation to significance8, and believes that people with autism and Asperger's syndrome are stuck in different stages9. While famous for her work on autism, she finds her forced role as a self-described "walking autie textbook" to be dehumanizing6. As stated in her books, one of her life's biggest goals has been to be true to herself. After she started fighting an immune deficiency, she chose the dandelion as her personal symbol, standing for strength and perseverance in the wake of adversity.10
Donna Williams has attracted her share of controversy, both by virtue of the position she has been forced into and the positions she has taken on various issues. She believes now that these controversies have helped her grow as a person.
Is Donna Williams really autistic? The short answer is: Of course she is. Fueled by a stalker intent on harming her reputation,10 this rumor has unfairly damaged her credibility. Many people point to her multiple personalities and her record of abuse as a child, and question her motivations in believing she is autistic. But the truth is that many people born autistic are also abused, and to believe that the two cannot occur at the same time is damaging to the large number of autistic people who have experienced both at once.
Opinions. She holds controversial opinions on the neverending cure debate2,3,4,7, extrasensory perception8, the difference between autism and Asperger's syndrome7,9, the lines between autism and other conditions, autistic development8, facilitated communication6,7,9,10, neuroleptic drugs9,10, and the role of the immune system and other biological factors in autism7,10. Many autistic people disagree with at least some of what she says, and many agree with at least some of it. Her views are made more prominent and controversial than those of other autistics by her involuntary status as one of the first autistic celebrities. It is likely that if she were not among the first, she would be just another one of us muddling along, and not so widely discussed or controversial.
Personal reactions to her work: Like a lot of autistic people, I came across her work before I came across anyone else's. Nobody Nowhere spoke to parts of me that nobody else had ever seen, and that I had never dared expose. While there are now dozens of books by autistic people, there were only a few at the time of my diagnosis. I read each of her books voraciously, eventually acquiring her demo album and then her album.
As for her views, it is difficult for me to disentangle the parts I agree with from the others, because they have been woven into each other -- a simple statement can be half-right and half-wrong. Usually the experiential and emotional half is accurate, but the interpretation and implications given can go either way. I worry that an unsuspecting neurotypical could generalize her blanket statements about autism to the rest of us, not knowing which halves apply and which don't. As such, I've developed a strong preference for her poetry and music over her theories, and have wished that someone with similar experiences would come along and write different opinions. I also believe that some of her views on neurology would be best described as pseudoscience. Nevertheless, Nobody Nowhere and Not Just Anything will always be special to me.
1Williams, Donna. Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic. New York: Avon Books, 1992.
2Williams, Donna. Somebody Somewhere: Breaking Free from the World of Autism. New York: Times Books, 1994.
3Williams, Donna. "About 'Fighting Autism'." Our Voice. Volume 2, Issue 1, 1994: 6-8.
4Drake, Stephen. "Media Review Column." Our Voice. Volume 2, Issue 1, 1994: 14-15.
5Williams, Donna. Not Just Anything: A Collection of Thoughts on Paper. Texas: Future Education, 1995.
6Williams, Donna. Like Color to the Blind: Soul Searching and Soul Finding. New York: Times Books, 1996.
7Williams, Donna. Autism - An Inside-Out Approach: An innovative look at the mechanics of 'autism' and its developmental 'cousins'. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1996.
8Williams, Donna. Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1998.
9Williams, Donna. Exposure Anxiety - The Invisible Cage: An Exploration of Self-Protection Responses in the Autism Spectrum and Beyond. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003.
10Williams, Donna. Donna Williams Home Page. www.donnawilliams.net. inUK. 2003.