Word Play: Healing voices
Is there anyone among us who does not know, or know of, a child with an autism spectrum disorder? Whether diagnostic criteria are allowing us to identify more individuals, or something in the environment is causing more autism, or our social habits and educational guidelines no longer encourage families to isolate kids with developmental differences, there are more children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in our classrooms, on our sports teams and in our lives.
Since one of the symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder is social difficulty, there is an awkwardness fitting these children into groups. Other children find them hard to make contact with, because they often do not pick up on the social cues -- facial expressions, verbal play -- that kids learn to make friends. One goal of integrating kids with these disorders is to help them develop social skills. Another is to give mainstream kids a sense of the variety of human experience. Wouldn’t it be desirable to help everyone find a way to make contact?
Here is where fiction can help: by showing a reader the world from another point of view. An extremely popular pair of children’s books -- " Al Capone Does My Shirts” and “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” -- have a secondary character with a developmental disorder that goes unnamed because, as author Gennifer Choldenko explains in an author’s note, autism was not identified at the time of the story’s setting in the 1930s. The main character’s sister begins as a burdensome charge whose odd habits embarrass her brother in front of his new friends, but she ends up being accepted in the society of children and affecting the course of the story materially.
Other novels are telling their stories more daringly from the point of view of a character “on the spectrum.” In Kathryn Erskine’s “Mockingbird” (Philomel/Penguin: $15.99, ages 10 and up), 10-year-old Caitlin has lost her brother, the one person with whom she felt accepted and at ease. Her discovery of the concept of “closure” helps her come to terms with her brother’s death. Caitlin’s often clumsy attempts to find a path to closure end up lighting the way also for her father, who in his grief is even more isolated than she is.
Although “Mockingbird” may sound like a distressing read, the emotional distance created by Caitlin’s Asperger’s qualities lowers the temperature of the drama and makes the experience, like so much in Caitlin’s life, a struggle to make sense of things that are worth puzzling out.
Nora Raleigh Baskin’s “Anything But Typical” (Simon & Schuster: $6.99 paper, ages 9-12) underlines the delicate matter of disorder labels by making fun of the “alphabet soup” used to cover a wide range of individuals. Writing about himself briefly in the third person (before trying to maintain a first-person point of view for the rest of the book), sixth-grader Jason Blake says he was “diagnosed with ASD, autistic spectrum disorder. But his mother will never use that term. She prefers three different letters: NLD, nonverbal learning disorder. Or these letters: PDD-NOS, pervasive developmental disorder-non-specific. When letters are put together, they can mean so much, and they can mean nothing at all.”
The labels themselves are distancing. When Caitlin’s father observes that she had a TRM at school, she substitutes “That Reminds Me” for the far more disturbing words he has in mind, “Tantrum Rage Meltdown.” Caitlin, with Asperger’s, is offended by being associated with an autistic boy in her school, until her counselor points out that she seems to consider herself above him in the same way that other students consider themselves above her.
“Anything But Typical’s” Jason refers to the other kids in his school as “neurotypicals.” He expresses himself in fiction and through the intermediary of an online story-writing community finds himself drawn to someone who might conceivably be considered a girlfriend. This book pushes past the difficulty of making friends to the infinitely trickier area of making romantic connections.
If we are reading these novels as primers on getting along, the first lesson is that just because kids are hard to relate to, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to relate. In fact, these characters expend enormous effort to match their behavior to others’ just to fit in. They study the Facial Expressions Chart to learn the clues to reading emotion on others’ faces. When Jason describes trying to match the cartoon emotions on the chart with the infinitely more subtle expressions of real life, it seems amazing that most people can interpret faces intuitively: “Why are they wrinkling their forehead or lifting their cheeks like that? What does that mean?”
Ted, narrator of Siobhan Dowd’s “The London Eye Mystery” (Dell/Yearling: $7.50 paper, ages 9-12), tries to follow his teacher’s advice: “If I learn how to be like other people, even just on the outside, not inside, then I’ll make more friends.”
The most comfortable relationship these characters have is often with their siblings who, by force of intimacy and affection, have learned to bridge the gap. Caitlin says of her brother that he “tells me what to say and what clothes to wear and how not to be weird so kids won’t laugh at me. And he plays basketball with me.” Although she may not read emotion well, she observes closely: “He always gives me a chance to win by tripping or moving slowly or going the wrong way when I do a fake. I can tell when he’s doing something on purpose by looking at his mouth. His lips move a certain way when he’s thinking. When he’s being sneaky his lips move a different way. But when he’s being sneaky he’s doing it to be nice to me.”
The books make arguments for inclusion or at least tolerance by acknowledging the tendency of kids to gang up on those who are different. The painful scenes of schoolyard conflict give readers ample opportunity to understand why recess could be the worst part of the day for some kids.
In “The London Eye Mystery,” Ted finds a surprising confidant in his newfound cousin Salim. “I don’t like being different,” Ted tells him. “I don’t like being in my brain. Sometimes it’s like a big empty space where I’m all on my own. And there’s nothing else, just me.” Salim, a moody teenager, answers: “I know that place. I’m in there, too. It gets real lonely in there, doesn’t it?” When Salim disappears while riding the enormous Ferris wheel, the London Eye, Ted and his sister track him down by doing a kind of detective work that Ted’s logical brain is particularly suited for.
The mystery genre works well for these characters. Perhaps the first popular novel told from the point of view of an autistic character was Mark Haddon’s multi-prize-winner, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” in which an extremely intelligent and high-functioning young autistic man solves a murder. (OK, the murder is of a dog, but the book uses the detective story form, and the title refers to a Sherlock Holmes story.) The hero of “Marcelo in the Real World” by Francisco X. Stork (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic: $17.99, ages 12 and up) is a young man entering his last year at his special school whose father challenges him to test his hard-won social skills in a real-world summer job. A mystery presents itself, which Marcelo, with his special powers of observation, is uniquely qualified to solve.
Detectives are allowed to be eccentric; indeed, it’s often part of their success, both forensic and literary. (Think of all the beyond-quirky detectives on television shows, from “Columbo” to “Monk.”) Some have suggested that Sherlock Holmes himself exhibits certain Asperger’s qualities: a single-minded brilliance leaning heavily on an encyclopedic memory, a social abruptness and insensitivity that might be masked with a codified Victorian gentlemanliness. When Holmes needs to charm, he might simply be applying the kind of social rules that “on the spectrum” characters have drummed into them.
All these novels are worth reading just because they have fascinating characters. Readers might like to enter their minds at least in fiction, and who knows? Perhaps they’d be inspired to take a new look at some of their classmates. Surely some kids would be intrigued by Ted in “The London Eye Mystery,” who can say of himself: “It’s not that I’m sick . . . Or stupid . . . But I’m not normal, either. . . . It’s like the brain is a computer. But mine works on a different operating system from other people’s. And my wiring’s different too.”
For younger readers and families:
Ex-professional football quarterback Rodney Peete’s family shares their story of discovering that one of their twins, R.J., is autistic. “Being twins doesn’t make us exactly the same,” R.J.'s sister Ryan observes in her children’s picture book, “My Brother Charlie” (Scholastic: $16.99, ages 6-10), while the title of the father’s book -- “Not My Boy!” (Hyperion, $24.99 ) -- says it all about what the family has learned about patience, acceptance, love and grace.
What about autistic adults? Here are some books worth looking into:
“Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s” by John Elder Robison (Three Rivers Press: $14.95). The author’s Asperger’s went undiagnosed until he was 40, by which time he had learned to deal with it through the cultivation of a number of fascinating and odd occupations. Robison made a brief appearance in his brother Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, “Running With Scissors.”
“Born On A Blue Day” by Daniel Tammet (Free Press: $15 paper). Inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant, like the character Dustin Hoffman played in “Rain Man.”
“Episodes: My Life as I See It” by Blaze Ginsburg (Roaring Brook Press: $16.99 ages 12 and up). This memoir has its fans, although I find it entirely unreadable, perhaps because I fail to see the use of episodic television as a structure for making sense of life experiences.
“The Speed Of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon (Ballantine/Del Rey: $7.99 paper). Here’s some science fiction about a company in the future that relies on the special abilities of autistic employees and about the moral implications of finding a cure for autism.
Sonja Bolle’s “Word Play” column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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