I’ve been so caught up in April being National Poetry Month that I almost missed the fact that it’s also National Autism Awareness Month. Strangely enough, I actually read two books this month told from the perspective of a character with Asperger’s syndrome– The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which is a romantic comedy for adults, and The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd, which is a young adult novel. I really enjoyed them. The Rosie Project is an extremely entertaining novel with dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, and The London Eye Mystery has compelling characters, realistic drama, and (most surprising to me) is also a very good mystery. I recommend them both.
While it is somewhat ironic that I happened to pick up these two titles during the month of April, it is no coincidence that I chose to read books about characters facing the challenges of Asperger’s. I have been drawn to stories that tackle this subject for years now, ever since I began meeting people on the autism spectrum in my classroom.
During my last eight years of teaching seventh grade English, I taught a dozen or so students who had been diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s, or who were undiagnosed but showed symptoms of the syndrome. I also interacted with several more students who were not in my classroom but who attended my school. The middle school where I taught was excellent at providing the support these students needed while also making sure they received the respect they deserved from adults and peers alike. I was proud to work there.
Working with students who faced these challenges inspired me to learn more and, since I prefer fiction over nonfiction, I looked to novels to give me glimpses inside lives of people with autism and their families. I read: Rules by Cynthia Lord, Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, and Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. This month, I added the two new titles to my list. I enjoyed all of these books, but my favorite was Anything But Typical. It provided, for me, the best insights into the minds of my former students. My full review of the book is below.
One more thing: Even though the books I’ve listed above have been well-received and, in some cases, have won awards, you will still find reviews criticizing them for portraying too unrealistic or too limited an image of people on the autism spectrum. I am not trying to disagree with those readers. These books are fiction, and I don’t believe that a book exists (fiction or nonfiction) that can truly teach me what it’s like to have autism. And even if it does exist, it would only show me one person’s perspective. Every person with autism is unique. Despite the collective label, despite the similar symptoms and behaviors, no two people are alike. Period.
If you’re interested in learning more about autism and Asperger’s syndrome, I suggest you head over to Autism Speaks after reading this book review.
Anything But Typical is told from the first person perspective of Jason Blake, a twelve-year-old boy with autism and (therefore) a whole lot of acronyms to deal with, from IEP to NLD to PDD-NOS. Jason perceives the world very differently from NTs (neurotypicals) and his preference for silence over unnecessary talk and the way he avoids looking at faces (because trying to decipher them is distracting) can be frustrating for those around him, even (especially) those closest to him. Jason’s outlet, the place where he can express himself and show his creativity, is writing. He even makes friends with a girl on the Storyboard site where he posts his fiction stories. But when various coincidences lead him to a convention where he could come face to face with his new friend, Jason’s anxiety increases to new levels. He doesn’t want this girl to see him. He doesn’t want her to know.
This is a great book. It ranks right up there with some of my other favorite YA novels about kids who are different, like Rules by Cynthia Lord and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Anything But Typical is told with touching honesty. As a former middle school teacher, I can say from experience that Baskin’s description of Jason’s behavior in the library when his favorite computer is in use is excellent. And her portrayal of Jason’s misunderstood relationship with his mother is both beautiful and heartbreaking. These few lines from page 68 sum it up for me:
“Isn’t it funny, Jason?” my mother is saying. “Isn’t it funny that when you were really little you wouldn’t wear a belt at all? Isn’t that funny?”
I love my mother so much.
“Remember, Jason?” she is saying. “Remember those leggings?”
We are both remembering the same thing.
“Those leggings?” I repeat what she has said, so she will know this.
“No?” my mother is saying. “You don’t? It’s okay. It was a long time ago. Well, let’s go, shall we?”
The book made me want a second chance at understanding some of my former students with autism and asperger’s syndrome and, more than anything else, it made me want to give their moms a big hug.
My only complaints about this book are minor. There were a few typos that were distracting because at first I was trying to figure out if they were purposeful due to the first person narrator, and I felt that Jeremy, the brother, acted a lot younger than his nine years. But overall I really enjoyed this story and I was very pleased that it did NOT end with Jason writing the book. That ending has been a bit over-done in YA lit and I thought for awhile that was where this novel was heading.