Thursday July 8, 2010

WILLIAMSTOWN -- One-hundred and thirty-four families with autistic children in the Berkshires work with Community Resources for People with Autism, and the Center for Disease Control estimates that one in 110 children have the disorder nationwide.

But before there were support centers or even readily available statistics about autism, there was Clara Park's 1968 book "The Siege," a canonical narrative about raising an autistic child. The work helped pave the way for the compassionate understanding of the disorder that advocates are still forging today.

Park died in Williamstown on Saturday and will be buried at the Williams College Cemetery this morning. She was 86.

In 1968, Park published "The Siege" about raising her young autistic daughter, Jessica Park. She then released a second edition in 1982 that updated the story of Jessica, who was by then a young woman who had achieved a reputation as an artist, a friend to many, and a longtime employee in the Williams College mailroom. "The Siege" was translated into numerous languages. In 2001, Clara penned "Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism," which contained a foreword written by Oliver Sacks, the noted physician and best-selling author.

"I think that what makes her books unique is that she was able to approach this subject that was absolutely the closest to her at a kind of distance, and that made it speak so resonantly with so many people," said Paul Park, Clara's son and a lecturer in English at Williams College.

The prevailing wisdom on autism in the 1960s was dictated by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's theory that childhood autism was a symptom of family pathology.

Megan Sherman, family support manager for Community Resources for People with Autism who works in the Pittsfield office, said that Bettelheim coined the term "refrigerator mom" -- his belief that autism was caused by mothers who were cold.

The idea went against Clara's own observations and feelings, and in "The Siege," she rejected it.

"That was enormously important to many families who had never heard anything like that, and had allowed themselves to be blamed for things they didn't understand," Paul Park said. "It became a movement for the organization of various support groups."

Clara Park's heartfelt account of raising her child, the youngest of four, helped disprove this theory as well as the idea that individuals with autism don't want to interact with others.

Her son explained that his mother's story helped also to liberate the voices of professionals who disagreed with the prevailing knowledge.

"There was a shift in the way that people thought about these things," he said. "And now the shift has gone so far the other way, it's hard to even remember that's what everybody thought. It's hard to remember what a lonely voice my mother was in the ‘60s."

Clara Park was a devoted literary scholar, teaching English at Berkshire Community College and Williams, and her mastery of prose made her books readable and entertaining, in addition to game-changing.

Sherman said that Park's works on autism are a linchpin in the emotional and intellectual wisdom of the field.

"We still have them on most of the shelves in our resource libraries," Sherman said. "In the ‘70s, there wasn't a lot of information from the perspective of a parent and primarily from someone living with someone with autism -- so that was a huge, huge thing when she wrote ‘The Siege.'"