Clara Claiborne Park, pioneering US autism pioneer and author of 'The Siege,' dies at 86|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts, USA: Jessy, the eight-year-old daughter of Clara Claiborne Park, would step around a spot of light on the floor for hours, or incessantly run a chain through her fingers. She would sit and stare through people around her as though they were not there. A word she learned one day would fade from her memory the next.
That was more than 40 years ago, when autism was barely understood, much less recognised, as a standard diagnosis. It was considered schizophrenia, or, to some professionals who embraced the term “refrigerator mother,” a deep-seated decision to closet consciousness from an unbearable family situation, including an emotionally frigid mother.
Mrs Park, a college English teacher, wanted to tell her daughter’s story, and the book she wrote, “The Siege,” published in 1967, did that and more. It was credited with assuaging the guilt that so many parents of autistic children had assumed, and came to be regarded as an important source of insight for psychiatrists, psychologists, educators and advocates.
Mrs Park died on July 3 in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She was 86. The cause was complications from a fall, her son, Paul, said.
In the first edition of “The Siege,” Jessy was called Elly because Mrs. Park, hoping that her daughter would someday be able to read, did not want her to be embarrassed. That concern dissolved, and Elly became Jessy in later editions, as well as in a sequel, “Exiting Nirvana” (2001), which recounted the agonizing but steady progress of the girl and her family.
“She was one of the first parents who had the courage to share their story at a time when autism was poorly understood,” Dr Fred R. Volkmar, director of the Yale University Child Study Center, said of Mrs Park. “Since she first published her book, wider recognition of autism and early diagnosis have led to new treatments and improved outcomes.”
Bridget A. Taylor, co-founder and director of the Alpine Learning Group in Paramus, New Jersey, a school for autistic children, agreed, saying: “The book really set the stage for families to search for answers; to no longer accept ‘no’ from the establishment, to have higher expectations for their children. In many ways it decreased the isolation that families felt, and for many young professionals in the field, the book was an invaluable reading assignment to learn what the experience is like.”
Jessica Park, now 51, can read, is an accomplished artist and has worked in the mailroom at Williams College, in Williamstown, for 30 years. Her mother was a lecturer in English studies at Williams from 1975 until 1994.
There is no cure for autism, only palliative treatments of varying effectiveness. Like many other developmental disorders, autism affects patients with a range of conditions — from those who function at high levels but have social and emotional barriers to those who cannot communicate and repetitively rock or bang their heads.
“My mother knew early on that something wasn’t right,” Paul Park said. “Jessy didn’t show classic signs of retardation: she was co-ordinated, there were certain tasks she performed efficiently. She spoke very hesitantly by the time she was eight.”
Still, in measured, often poetic assessments, Mrs Park’s books describe how Jessy recoiled when touched, screamed in desolation if a washcloth was missing from the bathroom and performed abstruse mathematical calculations. Mrs Park told of the difficulty finding professional care and the turmoil the entire family faced.
The second edition of “The Siege” says, “I write now what 15 years past I would still not have thought possible to write: that if today I were given the choice to accept the experience, with everything that it entails, or to refuse the bitter largesse, I would have to stretch out my hands — because out of it has come, for all of us, an unimagined life.”
Born on August 19, 1923, in Tarrytown, New Jersey, Clara Justine Claiborne was the daughter of Virginia and Robert Claiborne. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1944. A year later, she married David Park, who would become a noted physicist.
They began graduate studies together at the University of Michigan, where Mrs Park received a master’s degree in English literature in 1949. Two years later, they moved to Massachusetts, where she first taught at Berkshire Community College and later at Williams.
Besides Jessy and her son, Paul, Mrs Park is survived by her husband; two other daughters, Katharine Park and Rachel Park; and two grandchildren.
In “Exiting Nirvana,” Mrs Park quotes a string of spontaneous utterances from her 15-year-old daughter: “And silence is 8. And between silence and sound is 7. Sounds and silence at the same time but not between. Only politeness is sound.”
Jessica Park graduated from Mount Greylock High School when she was 21. There, an art teacher encouraged her to draw. She now sells paintings — not of people, but mostly of streetscapes that combine precise draftsmanship and wild colours. At Williams College, where she has been employed since high school, a sign on the door of her workplace says, Jessica H. Park Mailroom.
(Source: The New York Times, July 12, 2010)