Clara Claiborne Park, The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child, 1967

Clara Claiborne Park, The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child (New York: Harcourt, 1967).

The Siege: The First Eight Years of an Autistic Child, written by Clara Claiborne Park, was one of the earliest, most beautiful, and still most important parent memoirs about autism. It described the siege that Park mounted against the autistic solitude imprisoning her daughter, called “Elly” in the book, during the years before and after the child’s diagnosis. In addition to narrating a compelling family story, Park anticipated future directions in autism theory and practice, often by decades. She rejected the idea that parents were responsible for autism, insisted that professionals work in respectful partnership with parents, and encouraged other parents to take good care of themselves. Park refused to categorize autism as a psychosis, or a mental illness of any kind. The syndrome’s main characteristic, she concluded, was absence of the developmental momentum and motivation that made learning possible in the first place. In 1967, Park described autism more or less as we now understand it: as a developmental disability in which sensory processing, language acquisition, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills are all implicated. Autism denied children the tools they needed to enter the complicated web of human emotions and form necessary social connections.


Jessica Park as a young child (courtesy of Jessica Park and Tony Gengarelly)

We start with an image—a tiny, golden child on hands and knees, circling round and round a spot on the floor in mysterious, self-absorbed delight. She does not look up, though she is smiling and laughing; she does not call our attention to the mysterious object of her pleasure. She does not see us at all. She and the spot are all there is, and though she is eighteen months old, an age for touching, tasting, pointing, pushing, exploring, she is doing none of these. She does not walk, or crawl up stairs, or pull herself to her feet to reach for objects. She doesn’t want any objects. Instead, she circles her spot. Or she sits, a long chain in her hand, snaking it up and down, up and down, watching it coil and uncoil, for twenty minutes, half an hour—until someone comes, moves her or feeds her or gives her another toy, or perhaps a book….

Children vary in the intensity of their desires, and the aggressiveness with which they express them. Some babies are reasonably self-sufficient from birth—“good” babies, active and contented in their playpens, cheerful among their toys. Others are demanding and dependent. These we try to reassure, to lead gently toward self-sufficiency. We think of self-sufficiency as a virtue, even among babies—as a forerunner of independence, of inner resource.

It is some time before it occurs to a busy mother, with three other children, that a baby can be too self-sufficient.

Elly did not point. Nor did she try to get objects that were not within her reach; she seemed unconscious they were there. Content in crib or pen, when removed from them she crawled freely from room to room. But it was motion, not exploration. She did not push or poke, open drawers, pull at lamps or tables. At twelve months, when she began to crawl, I got ready the gates that we had used to keep the other three children from falling downstairs. I never used them….

I knew only that my fourth child was not like the others, who needed me, and loved me, as I loved them. The fairies had stolen away the human baby and left one of their own. There she moved, every day, among us but not of us, acquiescent when we approached, untouched when we retreated, serene, detached, in perfect equilibrium. Existing among us, she had her being elsewhere. As long as no demands were made upon her, she was content. If smiles and laughter meant happiness, she was happy inside the invisible walls that surrounded her. She dwelt in a solitary citadel, compelling and self-made, complete and valid. Yet we could not leave her there. We must intrude, attack, invade, not because she was unhappy inside it, for she was not, but because the equilibrium she had found, perfect as it was, denied the possibility of growth. We  had not demanded; now we must. We had accepted; now we must try to change. A terrible arrogance, for what had we to offer her? Which of us could call ourselves as content as Elly was? The world we would tempt her into was the world of risk, failure, and frustration, of unfulfilled desire, of pain as well as activity and love. There in Nirvana, why should she ever come out? Yet she was ours as well as her own, and we wanted her with us. If what we had to offer was not enough, we had nothing beside it. Confronted with a tiny child’s refusal of life, all existential hesitations evaporate. We had no choice. We would use every stratagem we could invent to assail her fortress, to beguile, entice, seduce her into the human condition.




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