Much has been written in the news media over the last decade or so about the rise in incidences of autism spectrum disorders among children. Many of these journalistic accounts, however, focus on the parents, teachers and caregivers of these autistic children, not on the children themselves. After all, part of the profile of autistic children is that they are difficult, if not impossible, to reach according to “neurotypical” standards of communication and emotional attachment. With ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL, Nora Raleigh Baskin perceptively and realistically imagines herself inside the head of Jason Blake, an autistic sixth-grade boy.
Jason’s autism was first suspected when he was in preschool, but was not diagnosed until he was in second grade, when a combination of academic difficulties and social challenges finally forced his parents to acknowledge that their son might be different from the other children in his class. Now, as a sixth grader, Jason has had enough therapy and individualized attention to allow him to be fully included in his classroom, but every day is still a challenge for him. He has no real friends, although one or two children are kind to him. His teachers often don’t understand why he has trouble waiting in line, adapting to change, or dealing with loud crowds and bright lights.
Jason does feel safe --- and loved --- at home. He has a loving and supportive family who often acknowledge frustration and misunderstanding of his disorder, but love him unconditionally. His parents, not surprisingly, worry about him and his future. His younger brother, Jeremy, both protects and looks up to him. Even at home, though, Jason often has the difficult job of reading his family members’ emotions, a process that neurotypical people do without even thinking about it, but that takes tremendous energy and concentration for Jason.
Fortunately, Jason has one place where he feels completely at home and at ease. Although he rarely speaks aloud, he loves words and has a gift for reading and writing, and for understanding how stories work. He loves to write stories and post them at Storyboard, an online short story site where he can receive feedback from other users and comment on their stories as well. That’s how he meets Rebecca (screen name PhoenixBird), who loves his stories of misunderstood, misfit characters and his themes of difference and conformity. The two begin an e-mail correspondence, and Jason starts thinking of Rebecca as his girlfriend. But when his parents surprise him with a trip to the Storyboard national conference and when he finds out that Rebecca will also be attending, Jason is terrified. How will Rebecca feel about him when she meets him, when she learns that behind those lovely words on her computer screen is a very different boy from the one she might have imagined?
In ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL, Nora Raleigh Baskin explodes the common perception that autistic individuals are emotionally distant and uninvolved. Jason does feel love, anger, hurt and fear --- he just expresses these emotions in a way completely foreign to more “typical” readers. As Jason writes, it’s as if he has to tell his story in a foreign language when he tries to translate his experience into something that will make sense to neurotypical readers. At times, readers may feel like they’re looking at Jason’s world through a thick, somewhat unfocused glass --- which, come to think of it, might be the way Jason himself views his world, as a complicated, out-of-focus place that requires real work to decipher and interpret.
One of the most moving aspects of this beautifully written novel is the relationship between Jason and his parents. Readers (utilizing the dramatic irony that Jason defines without grasping how it applies to his own narration) will understand that Jason’s parents feel anger, sadness and discomfort toward their son. They’ll also see that Jason’s parents often misread him, just as he misreads them. But they’ll also witness the profound love that exists even in this most unusual relationship, a love that expresses itself most genuinely during Jason and his mother’s trip to the Storyboard convention.
Obviously, Jason, with his gift for writing and storytelling, makes an ideal subject for a book of this sort, more so than, say, an autistic kid who has a particular affinity for numbers or music. Nevertheless, Baskin has convincingly and movingly humanized the autistic individual in ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL, creating a narrator who readers won’t soon forget and inspiring new levels of empathy for the growing number of autistic children in readers’ own communities and classrooms.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 9, 2010