Wednesday, April 7, 2010

autism in fiction

Somehow over my extended 2 week spring break I've managed to read 2 books that both center around a main character with Asperger's syndrome. House Rules, by Jodi Picoult, and Marcelo in the Real World by Frances Stork York. It's interesting to see how popular fiction is beginning to attempt to focus on characters with Asperger's syndrome, and how the authors choose to portray their main characters.
The holy grail of autism in literature is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, where the author, does an unbelievable job of portraying his character's world, in both the internal workings of his mind, and how his disorder impacts his family.

I'm not sure I can place either of these in the same category as The Curious Incident. However, despite the fact that I think Picoult copied many themes and even direct phrases from Rules, by Cynthia Lord, she does an incredible job of giving a 360 view of her character's communication disorder, and how it impacts those around him. It forced me to ask tough questions for myself- how do we prepare our children for the real world? Do we make it possible for them to independently handle the strain of life? Is it our job in schools to prepare them for more realistic situations, or do we need to focus on teaching them important academic tools like reading and writing that they also need to be successful?
Picoult uses a court room with expert witnesses to educate her readers about autism, which occasionally comes across as what it is, paragraphs out of an autism text book, but because it is a court setting she weaves the lectures nicely into the story.

Maybe it is because Picoult did such an incredible job of writing in the first person for her character with autism, but I couldn't appreciate Frances Stork Young's portrayal of his autistic character in Marcelo in the Real World. Marcelo, who is the same age as Picoult's main character, is not nearly as convincing. Young seems to flirt with autistic tendencies in writing about Marcelo's world, but does fully decide which of these tendencies his character has. His character occasionally speaks in the 3rd person, but does not do it consistently or in any discernible pattern, and bounces back and forth from first to third person in the same sentence. I've worked with children with autism who do speak in the 3rd person, but they reserved this for particular situations, and once they were in their 3rd person world they did not easily switch out of it. Marcelo's characteristics seem to bounce back and forth between a character with autism and one with a severe auditory processing disorder which would cause him to respond slower to stimulation, questions, extended wait time, and would in fact limit his communication. Marcelo says throughout the book that Asperger's is the closest definition to what he has, and I can't help but wonder if they should revisit his eligibility.

I was disappointed with Marcelo, but enchanted with House Rules, neither of which were the reactions I was expecting when I began reading both books. Marcelo, which promised to be an enlightening young adult book turned out to be written as though it was jumping on the autism bandwagon, and House Rules, which I was sure would be an autism bandwagon book, read with a more realistic portrayal of the world children and families with autism live in.

Our school's amazing librarian felt the same way about Marcelo, and expressed disappointment that the library could not offer a book to young readers with communication disorders that they could relate too. I'd love to hear other thoughts on Marcelo in the Real World, House Rules, and other books that portray characters with autism. What is out there for our children with high functioning autism to relate to? Or, because of the nature of their disability, are we more concerned with finding someone for them to relate to than they are?


Sneaker Teacher said...

I just read an older Jodi Picoult book and now I am reading 19 Minutes. I would love to read House Rules, sounds like a good one! I think my mom got it so I will have to borrow it. I really enjoy her books! Have you read Look Me in the Eye? It was about a man diagnosed with Aspergers in his 40's. Interesting, but it dragged at times. But that was apparently his true story so it's a different take than a fiction story.

organized chaos said...

Sneaker Teacher- for whatever reason I'm having trouble publishing your comment. I highly recommend House Rules!
Also, I have read Look Me in the Eyes- which then actually prompted a conversation with the author on my blog.


luckeyfrog said...

I'll have to check these out. While I was in college, we were assigned The Curious Incident. I loved it!

turtlemama said...

I absolutely loved Born on a Blue Day, Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet. Fascinating read.

Kelli said...

My first post on your amazing blog! I looooove reading your posts.

I have read The Curious Incident as well as Rules, but would like to check out the Jodi Picoult one and the one mentioned by turtlemama.