Review: I Have Autism and I Like to Play Bad Tennis by Debashis Paul

ByChintan Girish Modi
Apr 29, 2023 10:30 PM IST

A father’s memoir of raising a son with autism spectrum disorder will comfort parents in similar situations and educate those who know little about the condition

Parenting is a challenging job, and it becomes even more so for parents of neurodivergent children who have to navigate ableist systems that don’t provide a nurturing environment. They depend on professional guidance, support groups, family networks, paid caregivers, books, films, the kindness of strangers, and their commitment to doing what is most beneficial.

While there was never a formal diagnosis, it is believed that American icon Andy Warhol’s autism shaped his art. (Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images)
While there was never a formal diagnosis, it is believed that American icon Andy Warhol’s autism shaped his art. (Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images)

Debashis Paul’s book I Have Autism and I Like to Play Bad Tennis offers a window into the world of such parents. The “I” in the title refers to his son Noel, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of three and a half and died at 26. Paul is a management and strategy consultant, and his wife Bishnupriya Dutt is a university professor. Their parenting journey, as documented in this book, is likely to be a huge source of comfort to parents in similar situations and an eye-opener to people who know little about autism.

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240pp, ₹375; Westland
240pp, ₹375; Westland

Paul writes, “Younger parents of children with autism must understand how to recalibrate their own ambitions and priorities in life; how to let go of the urge to vicariously achieve their goals through their kids.” The book is replete with examples of how he learnt so much about the gap between his expectations and his son’s needs especially when it came to sports. For the father, playing was about winning whereas the son was focused only on enjoying himself. Noel did not care to impress or defeat, so he did not mind playing “bad tennis”.

The author’s experience of raising Noel taught him that children with autism “may not be able to form emotional and empathetic ties with friends”. As a result, these children feel the need to “lean heavily on their parents, siblings or other family members and their teachers to play the role of the proverbial friend, philosopher and guide.” Once Noel completed his schooling, his parents requested his teachers to meet him informally whenever possible. While some of them doted on him and were available, others promised but never showed up. It was hard for Noel to come to terms with this, and his outbursts were tough for his parents.

What makes this book so grounded is the author’s refusal to make things look pretty to inspire readers. He acknowledges that acceptance is “a steep task”, and that parents require “mental resolve and strength” along with “high levels of empathy” since they cannot afford to run out of patience when some things do not turn out as anticipated. The book includes stories about times when a disruption in Noel’s regular structure caused him to lose control, and act in ways that proved to be embarrassing or distressing for his parents. People around them called their son “extremely spoilt” or “a hopeless case” and they had to suck it up.

The author’s son Noel, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of three-and-a-half. (Courtesy Westland)
The author’s son Noel, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of three-and-a-half. (Courtesy Westland)

At the same time, Paul is humble enough to admit that other parents might have experiences that are different from his own because every person on the autism spectrum “exhibits unique characteristics of the condition”. He writes, “the nature and severity of impairments and strengths differ”. His personal narrative is not meant to be a substitute for medical information. He has included two appendices at the end of the book, which are derived from the National Autism Society in the United Kingdom and Musashino Higashi School in Japan.

This book seems to oscillate between the medical and social models of disability. The author writes about doing all that he could as a parent to empower his son to overcome challenges; which involved trying out various strategies and solutions that helped Noel make small gains in terms of self-worth, physical dexterity, conceptual understanding and social interaction. Alongside, the author advocates for the importance of educating others about autism; including sports coaches and heads of organizations offering internships to Noel.

Thankfully, there are several moments in the book that celebrate Noel for who he was and do not reduce him to what he could not do. His love of music, sense of humour, genuine concern for people who are unwell, close bond with his sister Ahvana, and his ability to lift anyone’s spirit with a warm smile and an innocent gesture, come alive through his father’s narration.

In fact, there is a lot to learn from Noel because he exposed the arbitrariness of social conventions that neurotypical folks hold on to with unbending zeal. The author failed to understand why his son was so distraught when they had to give up their car – a blue Corsa – for a new one. It did not occur to him that Noel has the capacity to form a profound emotional connection with an inanimate object, so letting go of the car was akin to losing a pet. Integrating this new understanding, the author was able to have an honest conversation about ageing, impermanence and death with his autistic son in a manner that was not too abstract.

Author Debashis Paul (Courtesy Westland)
Author Debashis Paul (Courtesy Westland)

One of the most moving anecdotes in this book has to do with Noel’s visit to a Dussehra celebration at Subhash Maidan in Delhi. The effigies of Ravana, Meghnada and Kumbhkarana were being burnt to depict the triumph of good over evil, and attendees at the event were cheering on. However, Noel was “aghast that people could actually revel in the violent act of burning someone (even if inanimate)”. The author notes, “The incident troubled him greatly. His problem was always with the idea of violence, irrespective of its form.”

Noel ended up teaching his father – who grew up playing with toy guns – that “symbolic violence was also a form of violence and must be condemned” even if it is enacted as part of “religious traditions or festival rituals”. In fact, when Noel once broke a bowl at home, he started packing a suitcase and told his father, “Baba, I have done something wrong… Now drop me to the police station.” He wanted to atone for the act by spending a few days in the lock-up. He had a strong sense of integrity and accountability; never wanting to escape.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Noel is someone you should not miss knowing.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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