Recently, I was made aware that a local school district is using the juvenile novel Rules as required reading for the third grade classes to raise awareness about autism. Of course, being the advocate and mom that I am, I needed to get a copy and find out why there was such an uproar. People were posting horrifying snippets from the book that are anything but tolerant, accepting or aware.
“I study the hair on the top of his head. How can his outside look so normal and his inside be so broken? Like an apple, perfect on the outside, but mushy brown at the first bite.”Rules, by Cynthia Lord
This is the protagonist, Catherine, referring to her eight-year-old autistic brother. Her brother is not severely autistic, by any stretch. He speaks clearly, can tell time and do higher functioning math than I certainly can, functions fairly normally, but enjoys many of the quirky things that most kids on the spectrum enjoy – repetition, stimming, routine.
Rules by Cynthia Lord is an eloquently written book, with beautiful, flowing imagery. Its brought to life by a vibrant, talented twelve-year-old, Catherine. My impression within just a few pages was that she is very bitter young woman. She’s expected to take on a lot of responsibility with a younger sibling who requires a lot of attention and understanding. The responsibility of a child on the spectrum can be daunting for a grown adult, hence why we witnessed atrocities with “different” children being abandoned for so many decades prior.
Several passages through the book disturbed me, as a mom of a quirky little guy. However, I do give Lord credit for some passages that I related to, deeply. Moments where you see the unbridled beauty of the autistic mind; moments where you don’t think you could possibly ever understand how he’s thinking; moments where you just want to take it all away, and just have “normal.” There’s so much about my son that would still be him without the hinderance of developmental delays. If I took away his inability to understand others and express himself, he would still be Nicholas, he’d just struggle a lot less day to day. He’d still be my quirky goofball, sensitive, hilarious, adorable.
Through David’s occupational therapy (OT) sessions, Catherine happens to meet a young man named Jason (I’m making some assumptions on his age – she guesses he’s older than her, but its never stated), presumably with cerebral palsy. Its never clarified why he’s in a wheelchair or needs his communication book, but he’s clearly “different.” Catherine has a hard time embracing it. She’s definitely embarrassed to have befriended this delightful young man, and it arises several times during the book. She makes efforts to conceal how David and Jason “are,” as though they’re defective. I am pleased to say that by the end of the book, she seems to make peace with both David and Jason being different, but the end is barely the tip of that iceberg.
However, my biggest concern is that all but the last few pages are her utterly bitter, angry, pre-teen angst combined with overwhelming responsibility, and a major lack of awareness and understanding, coming from Catherine and the kids in the neighborhood. Instead of spending the majority of the book “normalizing” or heck, just accepting the not-normal, the book spent almost the entire length avoiding the topic. Instead of Catherine stepping up and making it “ok” to be different, she literally spends all but the last few pages being deeply embarrassed by both boys. A neighborhood boy is downright cruel to David and then proceeds to attempt to influence Catherine’s new neighbor to do the same. Fortunately, the new neighbor, Kristi, has her own issues with her parents being separated, and is bewildered by David enough to not form a clear opinion on the topic. She is the most flexible character in the book, knowing she’d like to make friends, but also clearly destined to be one of the popular girls, once school starts again in the fall, regardless. Kristi seems to be open minded but not given guidance on how to approach David or Jason.
This is an important part that Lord failed to capitalize on, in my opinion. So much of her story was focused on how the parents were truly failing both kids that she took no time developing the tolerance and acceptance lesson that could have been threaded through the entire book. There is no sequel that I am aware of – another major missed opportunity. By the end of the book, Catherine had developed an “it’s OK” attitude, but it took nearly 200 pages for her to arrive there. Her father finally stepped up to take care of her brother in the last few pages. She finally enjoyed her friendship with Jason without feeling embarrassed that he’s in a wheelchair or different. She was finally thinking positively about her brother. But these are all missed opportunities to teach and learn true acceptance.
Lord’s writing style is beautiful, to be perfectly honest. I would enjoy reading just about anything by her, even as an adult. It took me back to my childhood, when I consumed books voraciously, and lived vicariously through characters who had exciting, interesting lives. I’m disappointed in her overall message of the book, as I feel she could have done a more extensive job, but in general, not a horrible book. I am, however concerned that school districts are trying to use this book for any type of awareness or acceptance, because I feel it desperately misses the mark. This might be excellent for someone who is experiencing autism from Catherine’s perspective, but it will hardly be helpful for someone who is experiencing it from a distance and already doesn’t know how to relate!
Let me hear what you think! Have you read this book?