So, as I love reading, I thought I’d start doing some book reviews where I focus on books which feature autistic characters, and give you my thoughts on how well they reflect the autistic experience. Obviously I don’t speak for all autistics, and my thoughts on the books are of course going to be terribly biased, but I’ll just give you some idea of how I relate to these characters and maybe some funny stories where I’ve done similar things. Note: there will be spoilers throughout this review as I talk specifically about plot and character events in order to draw parallels to my own life.
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For better or worse, The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time by Mark Haddon is a lot of neurotypicals’ introduction to the autism spectrum. For a bit of context, this book is written from the perspective of Christopher Boone, who is on the autistic spectrum, as he tries to solve a mystery about who killed his neighbour’s dog. I read this book as a young child, and I have to say I liked it. This book was the first time I ever read a book that featured someone like me, and I saw a lot of myself in Christopher. I related to his confusion over facial expressions and his difficulty in understanding sarcasm and phrases. I loved his relationship to animals, because I too often care for animals more than people. Even if I didn’t relate to all of his behaviours and feelings, it was something to finally see a character who was recognisably outside of ‘the norm’ in the same way I was.
When doing some research for this book, though, and reading reviews by both autistics and non-autistics, I found that it has sparked some controversy in and around the autistic community. So before we get into the actual content, I’ll address some of the things surrounding the book.
First of all, Mark Haddon is not on the spectrum, and claims he did very little research for the book, merely that he based Christopher’s traits on those of people he knew, which admittedly is a tad problematic. Some claim he is even exploitative in this regard, as he claims he ‘deliberately’ did not do research and declines to involve himself with organisations that promote awareness and acceptance; I’ve seen the argument that The Curious Incident is capitalising on the struggles of people with autism without involving that community, which is a serious and difficult issue that is still unfortunately a problem today, and not one which I’m necessarily qualified to talk about so I won’t. The novel itself never refers to the autism spectrum at all — Christopher is only identified as having ‘special needs’, but the back cover of one edition does claims that Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome, which Haddon claims to regret. While I appreciate Haddon’s sentiment that ‘imagination always trumps research’, I think that it’s a tad disingenuous to suggest that literature exists in a vacuum. Works of literature are not isolated form their contexts; they are shaped by and can shape real-world perceptions, and therefore we have a level of responsibility for the impact of our works on other people, particularly minority groups.
Some people have harped on the fact that it is suggested that Christopher is responsible for his parents’ divorce (and later the breakdown of his mother’s relationship with Roger), with the notion that this perpetuates the message to autistics that they are a burden. Christopher openly states of his parents: ‘They used to have lots of arguments and sometimes they hated each other. This was because of the stress of looking after some-one who has Behavioural Problems like I have’. Undoubtedly, no autistic child deserves to be told that they are responsible for their parents relationship problems, especially since their autistic behaviour is not always under their control. However when I read this book, I always saw Christopher as something of an unreliable narrator, and so I interpreted this line as being how he saw events, not necessarily how they actually were. And even though in the book his behaviour is heavily suggested to be the cause of a lot of stress — the book doesn’t shy away from the difficulties that can come with raising an autistic child — it doesn’t pin the blame on Christopher. His mother does state in her letters that it wasn’t his fault. However, I come from a place of privilege — I grew up with a very stable, loving family, and so the suggestion perhaps didn’t resonate as deeply for me, because I was constantly reassured that I was not a burden. I am aware that this perhaps makes it easier for me to see this sentiment as just an inaccurate view held by Christopher, and I appreciate that others may take more issue with the suggestion.
I’m not here to criticise or defend Haddon. I think it’s a shame that this book which is most people’s introduction to autism doesn’t come from an autistic voice, but on the other hand, this book did help raise awareness through its popularity. For me, growing up, even though it might have been not the best representation, it was representation of some kind. That begs the question: is “bad” representation better than no representation? It’s not a question I can particularly answer, and while I certainly won’t defend Haddon’s decisions, as a child I was just so glad to have something which showed me a character like me. But I think, especially in the time we live now, we can do better; we certainly need more autistic voices telling their own stories, and that’s why, though I’ve started with this book, I plan to make more blog posts in this style in future, talking about books by autistic authors. If you have any recommendations, or books you’d like me to talk about, comment them down below!
With that aside, back to my opinions on the book itself. Overall, on rereading this book, I found it pretty enjoyable. It certainly brought back a lot of nostalgia for studying maths, and like I said, I connect with Christopher’s voice a lot as a character. It was as I was reading this book that I realised that my perspective as an autistic reader means that I probably get something very different out of this book than some neurotypicals do, which I thought might be interesting to examine in this review.
So here are some of the things which I related to in this book; instances where I thought the author captured the experience of being autistic quite well; parts which I liked as well as parts which I didn’t. (Once more, spoiler warning for various scenes in the book).
Good Days, Bad Days.
The main thing that I always remembered about this book and which on rereading was just as nice to recall were Christopher’s ‘Good Days’, ‘Quite Good Days’, ‘Super Good Days’ and ‘Black Days‘. In the book, Christopher bases these on the number of cars in red or yellow which he sees on the road. While I have never particularly paid attention to cars, I definitely did something similar with classifying days when I was young (you can read more about this in depth in this post). In fact, I believe I actually borrowed the language of this book to categorise them. Christopher’s explanation was key as well. While his teacher asks him why he believes that coloured cars can dictate a day, even though in all other respects he’s so rational, Christopher answers: ‘I said I liked things to be in a nice order. And one way of things being in a nice order was to be logical. Especially if those things were numbers or an argument. But there were other ways of putting things in a nice order. And that was why I had Good Days and Black Days.‘ Rereading this, it made a lot of sense to me. I understood that desire for order, for the world to be based on consistent rules. Even if those rules might seem arbitrary to anyone but me, they helped give a sense of security.
Another feature was Christopher’s discomfort with eye contact. At one point, during a difficult conversation, Christopher’s father looks away from him while speaking, and Christopher remarks: ‘Usually people look at you when they’re talking to you. I know that they’re working out what I’m thinking, but I can’t tell what they’re thinking. It is like being in a room with a one-way mirror in a spy film. But this was nice, having Father speak to me but not look at me.’
I think this very neatly captures the feeling that I often have of being disadvantaged in social interactions, especially with new people: other people can read my emotions through my facial expressions, but I can’t always read theirs, and this makes me feel as though I’m on the back foot, and like I’m vulnerable because I don’t have as much information as everybody else. Another thing that Christopher mentions is that he doesn’t like to be laughed at. I don’t know if anybody, besides a comedian, particularly likes being laughed at, but as someone on the autistic spectrum, the dislike for being laughed at especially resonated with me, because it’s a very specific kind of humiliation when you know someone is laughing at you, but you don’t know why or what you’ve done. It’s such a fear of mine: that I’ll slip up because I’ve misread the tone of a conversation — and knowing that it’s something completely out of my control, because I simply don’t have the social tools like neurotypicals do, makes it all the worse. In other words: please don’t laugh at autistics when we don’t understand something — really, you shouldn’t laugh at anyone — but especially not at autistics, because when you’re laughing at us not understanding something, you’re laughing at our disability, something we can’t control.
Needing Specific Instructions
Something which ties into the above, and which also resonated with me, is the confusion that Christopher expresses when the neurotypicals around him don’t give specific enough instructions. His complaint: ‘People say ‘Be quiet’ but they don’t tell you how long to be quiet for.’ sums it up nicely. Autistic brains often prioritise detail and don’t like uncertainty. Unfortunately for us, neurotypicals aren’t usually so detail-oriented, and tend to leave things out on the basis of common sense, with the assumption that they will be understood anyway. However, things that neurotypicals often think of as ‘common sense’ isn’t actually common. Because a lot of common sense is actually predicated on being neurotypical — it’s predicated on an ability to read social situations, and recognise cues. For neurodivergent people, especially those on the autism spectrum, those things aren’t common sense! And this is why we’re often at a disadvantage in a society that was built around ‘common sense’, because instead of being told things specifically, we’re just expected to understand them. It’s a feeling like everyone else has been given a kind of Manual For Life, but you haven’t got one, but everyone around you just assumes you haven’t read it correctly, and you are looked down on for not understanding when really you never even had a chance to. You frequently feel like you’re floundering trying to figure it out on your own, without having been given the same toolset that everyone else has access to. A lot of which could be solved if people were simply more specific!
In addition, Christopher talks about feeling uncomfortable about strangers, and this is something I get as well. My Asperger’s makes me anxious about being surrounded by people, but there’s one line in the book which sums this up well: Christopher says that once he gets comfortable with somebody, ‘I don’t have to watch them all the time.’ That’s exactly how being out in public feels for me as an aspie. Everybody I don’t know is far too unpredictable, so I’m compelled to ‘watch them’ all the time, in order to be ready in case something unpredictable happens. Of course, it’s frequently impossible to watch everybody all the time, and that’s why its so exhausting. I once told my mother as a child that going to primary school felt like having the hairs on the back of my neck raised all day long. Such alertness isn’t always conscious either, most of the time I’m on edge entirely without realising it, and I only notice afterwards when the tension finally lifts and I feel tired.
Something which was just a minor detail in this book but which I felt very deeply was when Christopher described how a girl once destroyed his drawing. ‘She tore my big astronaut painting into two pieces and I threw it away again even after Mrs Peters sellotaped it together again because it looked broken’. To me this was just a hint at the kind of perfectionism which I also dealt with, especially when I was young (I had a strikingly similar incident involving a drawing of a rabbit which accidentally got crinkled and which I then mourned for the rest of the day). Despite even minimal damage, if it was no longer perfect, I found it a wasted effort, and there was nothing more painful than the idea that I had wasted time and effort. Click here if you want to read more on my struggle with perfectionism.
There are two occasions where Christopher wets himself. While I’ve never had this happen to me, I have certainly neglected my own needs in order to avoid the anxiety of socialising. This happens both on conscious and unconscious levels. For example, during school trips, when we stopped at services, I would stay on the bus while everyone left to go to the toilet and stretch their legs, even if I needed to go, because I would rather put up with the mild discomfort of needing the loo or achy legs than have to navigate a different unpredictable place and potentially interact with strangers. Not necessarily because I’m too scared to ask — scared is the wrong word here — but because I saw that asking for the bathroom and navigating a new place would involve a lot of stimulation, and required a lot of mental preparation, not to mention the inherent anxiety involved in the sheer number of uncertain variables in approaching someone. Fortunately, I’m much more confident with this now, and that comes from my parents making me practice in safe environments: they’d get me to order my own drinks, or go into shops to get a handful of groceries on my own, but with supervision and support available if I needed it. If I really didn’t want to, they never made me, but if I was only refusing because I was taking the easy route, then they would get me to do it. This is because neglecting your own needs is never good, and the strategy of never learning where a bathroom is will not get you very far — it’s best to ask when you don’t need it, rather than finding yourself desperate and then having to struggle to ask when you’re already preoccupied.
There are a couple of instances where the book has Christopher not answer questions, and that hits especially different for me as an aspie, and is what made me realise that, because I can relate it to my own experiences, I probably get something very different out of the book to neurotypicals. Because my experience of not talking feels different to how I imagine it feels for neurotypicals, and so there’s this extra layer of context every time Christopher doesn’t speak, which I don’t know if neurotypicals are privy too. Every time Christopher doesn’t answer a question, I feel my own experiences when I haven’t been able to speak, or have been too caught in my own mind — I know exactly how that feels, and so each short line like ‘I didn’t say anything’ feels that much more poignant. Of course, every reader is going to bring their own experiences to a reading of any book, but it just got me thinking about the differences between stories intended to be understood by neurotypicals, and stories intended for autistics.
Hiding in Small Spaces
At a couple points in the book, Christopher finds places to hide, and talks about how he feels more comfortable in small spaces. This is something I relate to, as having small places where I was hidden made me feel safe too. For example, we once had two mattresses leaning upright against the wall in an upstairs room, and I as a child used to squeeze in between them. It made me feel safe, because I was cut myself off from everything else, and the only thing I could smell or see was the mattresses around me. It was a way of feeling secure. I’ve also sat under desks, and just generally quite often have a desire to sit on the floor. The latter has more to do with sensory input than necessarily a need for security, but nonetheless I empathised with Christopher’s behaviour.
Overstimulation in Unfamiliar Places
Christopher’s description of being in a crowd is certainly accurate, but what’s significant in this book is how it gets how stimulated autistics are. It explains how Christopher sees much more than a neurotypical, and why this makes him overwhelmed. I get this too. For example, for me, walking into a new place is alarming. I’ve recently started going to a new bookshop — it’s a lovely place, but there are lots of things to look at. Walking in through the door, I’m not able to stop because there are people behind me, but at the same time I’m so visually stimulated i can’t process anything at first. So usually, I shoot straight in through the door to the back of the shop where I can see a space, and then I will turn around slowly and take everything in — I don’t want to be in anyone’s way, but at the same time I know I need to take things slowly before I can navigate the bookshop properly. This is just something to be aware of when going with an autistic to a new place: we can’t just walk in, we may need a few moments standing to one side in order to process all of the visual stimulation, because we ‘see everything’, as Christopher puts it. Mind you, it’s not just visual stimulation either; it’s like that for every sense at once (which is why shops that sell scented merchandise like Lush can be especially overwhelming).
At the train station, Christopher describes how he ‘did groaning’ in order to block out noise when he couldn’t put his hands over his ears because he was holding his pet rat, Toby. This is something that I sometimes do too — though my vocal stim is humming to myself, just one long single note, in response to feeling overstimulated. This is also why a lot of autistics like loud music, even though we don’t like loud noise, because it is a noise we can control, instead of unpredictable noise, and creating our own sounds can be a way of drowning out other stimulation. Christopher’s focus on rhythm in his mantra of ‘left right left right’ is also accurate to a lot of my stims — rhythm is comforting, and stims by definition are rhythmic behaviours, although they may not always look it to an outside perspective.
Need for Structure and Planning
Christopher mentions how planning is important, and this is certainly true for me. When talking about a summer holiday to France, he laments the lack of timetables, and to me this is very accurate: summer holidays could be very stressful, especially when I was young, because I didn’t have a structure like I did at school, and this made me feel anxious. Christopher’s solution of getting his parents to tell him what was going to happen every day is exactly what my parents used to do for me, and which, while it must have been a bit of a pain for them to have to relay the plan with such precision, it really helped me feel more secure, and like Christopher says, less ‘lost in time’.
Amidst all of these relatable qualities, though, there was one thing in this book which always stuck with me, which I’ve noticed in several other books featuring autistic protagonists: the inevitable grand journey out of their comfort zone, which is inevitably rendered especially challenging due to their autism. Most of the stories involving autistic characters may give them a happy ending of sorts, but it always involved them surpassing some great test which usually involved a meltdown. As a child, this filled me with dread. I empathised so strongly with the characters whose struggles I consistently read about that I came to feel that at some point in my life I too must go through something horrible as a result of my autism just as some kind of coming of age event. This feeling has on several occasions made me avoid books marketed as having autistic protagonists because it came to feel like they all followed the same trend — autism always made one’s life an extra struggle, and there would inevitably be humiliation (usually public, which for me, as a person who is extremely sensitive to second-hand embarrassment, was always painful to read). While I’m well-aware of the need for conflict in order for a book to be engaging, it always felt like autistic protagonists always suffered for their autism, and rarely did it give them any advantage in their situation; autism was overwhelmingly an obstacle on top of existing social struggles, never an asset. And when it was an asset, it was as the stereotype of savant syndrome. Having reread this book, I think my young mind exaggerated the situation — the book actually has a much more positive tone for Christopher in the end, and it largely brushes off any embarrassment Christopher might feel — but nonetheless, he has to go through a struggle that wouldn’t have panned out the same way had he not had his condition.
Nonetheless, this book was very enjoyable. Overall I would recommend it, about a 7/10, and it does portray autism quite accurately. It does employ certain familiar stereotypes, but it was worth the re-read in my opinion.
So, to conclude: thank you so much for reading to the end, and please like and follow if you got something out of this post (I know WordPress is inconvenient and makes you sign up for an account in order to like the post, but you only have to do it once, and every like really helps this blog out!). If you have any recommendations for books you’d like me to review in upcoming weeks (either by autistic authors, or featuring autistic characters, or both!) then put them in the comments. I’m also open to any feedback or future blog post ideas not relating to book reviews! Once again, thanks for reading!