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Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism Hardcover – March 9, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this affecting, thoughtful memoir, Prince-Hughes explores how working with gorillas helped her escape the feelings of isolation she encountered as a sufferer of Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulties processing stimuli, sensory sensitivity and social awkwardness. Her description of the course of her condition is both delightfully quixotic and terribly sad. Prince-Hughes's addictions to the smells of purple irises and tin Band-Aid boxes seem harmless enough, but her inability to emotionally connect to other people has terrible consequences. In high school, she is beaten and harshly abused. Trying to cope, she develops a drinking problem, spends months homeless and takes a job as a strip club dancer to make ends meet. A lifeline comes after a trip to the zoo, where the author discovers gorillas and forms a bond with them that changes her life. These creatures see the world the same way Prince-Hughes does: "They didn't look at one another, and they did look at me, they looked at everything." She gets a low-level zoo job and decides to make a career out of studying gorillas. By quietly, calmly watching the gorillas interact, Prince-Hughes learns about emotions like love, anger, concern and humor-feelings she could never understand in the purely human world. The author's favorite gorilla, a 500-pounder named Congo, becomes more of a friend than a subject, at one point literally giving her a shoulder to cry on. Although Prince-Hughes goes on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology, she still struggles with verbal and physical interactions. In print, however, she finds touching eloquence and clarity.
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From Booklist

This memoir tells how Prince-Hughes learned to manage her form of autism, Asperger's syndrome, by observing and interacting with gorillas. This "high-functioning" form of autism regularly goes unrecognized because sufferers are often gifted intellectually and learn numerous coping mechanisms. The author's accounts of her early childhood are intensely moving as she describes how she viewed her world and how she tried to deal with it. What makes this book unique is the author's discovery of the gorillas at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, and how she learned about personal relationships, the need for companionship, and the need for a group to belong to by watching them. Though she dropped out of school at 16, wanting to learn more about the gorillas helped her to find a focus and led to an eventual Ph.D. in anthropology. The reader will feel what the author is feeling, and her comparisons of herself with the gorillas she grew to love are fascinating. An excellent addition to any library's collection about autism, this will also resonate with all who understand the human-animal connection. Nancy Bent
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 225 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; 1st edition (March 9, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400050588
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400050581
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #735,137 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a memoir about being autistic and learning to accept and even revel in the uniqueness of being autistic.

Autism, in a sense, is a different strategy. It may be, in its "milder" forms, as that experienced by Dawn Prince-Hughes, who writes so beautifully well, an attempt to adapt to an ancient environment in which social abilities are not as valuable as some other talents. Many autistics would be more at home in the jungle or in woodlands or on the savannas of Africa than non-autistic people. Their ability to concentrate and to sense things acutely would serve them well. And any lack in social skill would not matter.

At least that is my impression after reading this wonderful book by a woman who "went forward by going backwards"--backwards, that is, "into the most primal and ancient part of myself." She had this experience with her "first and best friends, a family of captive gorillas, people of an ancient nation."

On the other hand, the autistic spectrum of disorders may represent imperfect ways of dealing with the world and with others. Usually autistic people are at a disadvantage, especially socially and vocationally, because other people find their behavior inappropriate and unfeeling. Dawn's behavior seemed at times cold and withdrawn and without proper affect. She had to force herself to make eye contact with people and to remind herself to engage in the social niceties. The curious thing about this is that autistics may actually feel things more strongly than the rest of us. The lack of social grace that many autistics display does not mean they are incapable of feeling or that their feelings of love and empathy are less than that of "normal" people.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By proreader on July 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
There is a quote from George Eliot's Middlemarch, which for me really sums up this book: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." When I read that, I realized that is how Dawn Prince Hughes has lived her entire life. Reading this book shows you what it is like to live with autism, Asperger's Syndrome in particular, and tells the story of how Dawn learned to cope, and even be happy, by observing a family of gorillas. If you are interested in the way the human brain works, and in the relationships between humans and animals, and about love and how it can save us all, you will truly love this book. To top it all off, Prince Hughes writes like a poet, and the immediacy of her prose makes reading this book a truly unique and special experience. Can't recommend this highly enough.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By CR on December 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
I was spellbound by Songs of the Gorilla Nation, a beautifully written memoir of a young woman who has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. Although she has difficulty communicating and interacting in person, she is a remarkably eloquent writer, and is able to describe and provide profound insight into the thought processes and experiences of people who have the syndrome.

She describes her syndrome as a sensory filter malfunction (interestingly enough, many people with Autism and Asperger's have asthma and terrible allergies, which can be seen as other types of 'filter' disorders). For her, to experience the world is to drown in synesthetic sensory overload. Overwhelmed, unable to process the tidal wave of stimuli, she escapes the painful barrage through obsessive compulsive behavior, repetitive actions, and solipsism. As a child she was unable to connect normally with other people and was incapable of picking up on normal social cues. Although not cognitively or verbally delayed, she was socially helpless. Blunt, inadvertantly rude, and always "different,' she was a vulnerable target for vicious schoolmates and even teachers. She suffered greatly as a tormented, confused social outcast.

Completely alienated, she dropped out of school at 16 and was moved to Seattle and became homeless, eating out of garbage cans to survive. She eventually became an exotic dancer, and with her first paycheck visted the Seattle zoo because she had always found solace in animals. There she discovers an almost mystical connection with the gorillas, and for the first time experiences empathy and connection with another primate.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By L. Modderman on March 19, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is fascinating, moving and very informative for anybody who is interested in autism and in animals. Since I am both, I enjoyed it immensely. It's comparable with Temple Grandin's 'Thinking in Pictures' with whom Dawn Prince-Hughes shares many deep insights and experiences. She writes beautifully, and her experiences are worth contemplating because they are far reaching and important. Reading this book strengthened my conviction that many people with autism have insights that could benefit us all, and deserve to be listened to carefully, and with great respect. This book is a must for everybody remotely interested in autism or primates, but I should wish it to reach as many readers, especially anthropologists! as possible.
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