On The Spectrum: Autism in Fiction

hiddengemsautism

Cathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library.

the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-timeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, now a Broadway play based on Mark Haddon’s book of the same name (2003), remains one of the best fictional accounts (at a time when many of us were still uneducated about this issue) of what it’s like to be inside the head of a person on the autism spectrum. It is a great book for young adults as well as general fiction readers.

C13547381urious Incident is such a pivotal work on this subject, the title is mentioned by both of the main characters in Love Anthony by Lisa Genova (2012). Genova has a PHD in neurosciences, and is the author of Still Alice (2007), which was adapted as an award-winning film this year, Left Neglected (2011) and her newest book, Inside the O’Briens (2015).

In the lovely setting of Nantucket, we sympathize with Olivia, who has loved and lost her autistic son Anthony. We root for Beth as she struggles with her marriage and her identity. Through her writing, Beth helps both herself and Olivia move forward in their lives.

…eventually she was simply writing about Anthony, a boy worthy of happiness and safety, of feeling wanted and loved. Just like her.

41GDc1-Ir6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_While those in the medical field still debate whether children are born with autism or develop it later, the resulting impact on children, families and communities is huge and the ways to cope vary greatly. Daniel Isn’t Talking (2006) by Marti Leimbach, set in England, highlights Applied Behavior Analysis as a way to work with families.  It also shows the effects on marriages and extended families as they learn to live with a challenging diagnosis. Melanie is desperate for a plan to help her 3-year-old son Daniel, who will only play with Thomas the Tank Engine:

He was perfectly normal until sometime around nineteen months, when we noticed he didn’t talk… He is ingenious at undoing locks… but so not clever at playing with toys…

Her husband, Stephen, can’t believe how their lives are shifting around him. The entry of Andy, an avant-garde therapist, changes everything for Daniel… and for Melanie.

It isn’t long before Daniel himself is pushing along Thomas, Andy blocking him every so often and calling “CRASH!” which Daniel loves.  You can see a light in the child’s eyes, a kind of recognition. I cannot describe what it does for my heart…

When we read this book as part of the Portsmouth Public Library Fiction Book Discussion, we discussed ideas about “what is normal,” how much to trust doctors and other professionals, and found this interview with the author, which gives some insight into her first-hand experience.

Left51AS0hwvKGL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  (2013) by Tamar Ossowski is a touching story about sisters and families – whether by birth or by choice. Therese and her friend Leah are best friends, almost closer than sisters. Narrated by Therese as well as her daughters Franny and Matilda, this is a story of hard new decisions, as well as the consequences of old ones. When keeping the girls safe becomes challenging for Therese, for everyone’s sake Franny goes to go stay with Leah for a while. There, Franny finds comfort in spelling words and painting:

Next to spelling, my favorite thing to do was paint and, when you’re nine, part of the magic of painting is that you can also color water.  I spent the first fifteen minutes watching the paint spiral and float into the water….

51O66YNkv4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In The Home Front (2015) by Margaret Vandenburg, Captain Barron is familiar with compartmentalizing his home life from his brutal daily work deciding military targets. As a drone pilot directing a team of 8, he sometimes thinks it would better to battle on the ground in Afghanistan than at home with his 3-year-old son Max.

It turns out that Max’s progressions and regressions will have an important influence on the way both his parents make decisions, affecting the whole family.

…if he went through with it… redeployment was an act of cowardice based on the assumption that winning the war on terror abroad was more likely than defeating autism on the home front.

If Max could embrace variation, there was a chance he could ultimately learn to tolerate unpredictability, the final frontier separating children with autism from living normal, chaotic lives.

51Sw27Wb9IL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_A different take on the family dynamic is the adult sibling relationship between Todd, a resident of the Payton Living Center, and his brother Nate in Best Boy (2015) by Eli Gottlieb.

These stories show the abilities and gifts of Daniel, Franny, Anthony, Max and Todd, and the challenges and joys of those that love them.


Hidden gems is a blog series by Cathy Okhuysen of the Public Services staff at PPL, lover of historical and general fiction and contemplative music singer. If you have suggestions for something that should be included in a future blog post, email her at ccokhuysen@cityofportsmouth.com.

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