Friday, January 7, 2011

Livvie Owen and Autism in Literature

As someone with a brother in law with autism, and a son's good friend who has Asperger's Syndrome, I have picked up a couple of the recent books written from the point of view of someone with autism.

When a "neurotypical" (person not on the autistic "spectrum") person writes a book with a "first person" narrator with autism, it becomes a very big challenge.  Also, me trying to write a book review is its own challenge.  I'm not an English major, just someone who likes to read.  I don't consider myself "literary" but I do consider myself intelligent-and I've spent some time with teens/adults on the "spectrum"....not as much as a parent/advocate/special ed teacher but perhaps more than a lot of laypeople.

Anyway, it's become somewhat fashionable to write these types of books.  People with autism are one of the flavors of the hour.  Problem is, people of this hour aren't people of the next hour.  They fade into the "who cares" category, and people with autism do not deserve that type of treatment.  So I hope that this is not a literary "fad", that good authors will continue to explore this element of human nature.

But, back to my stab at a book review.  I believe I've blogged before about my "discovery" of what is called young adult literature.  To my delight, it isn't all vampire love novels.  There is a lot of good, meaty, stuff out there.

So, I wanted to write a little about a YA book I read recently:  Livvie Owen Lived Here by Sarah Dooley.

This particular book is written by a teacher of children with special needs who lives in West Virginia.  So....Livvie Owen (Olivia), a high school student with autism,  lives in a small, dying town in West Virginia called Nabor with her younger sister, her older sister, and her Mom and Dad.

Good stuff:  Livvie is in a special ed class at her small West Virginia high school.  The school scenes ring absolutely true (in my somewhat limited experience with special ed classrooms).  The boy obsessed with snakes, the non-verbal girl who is Livvie's friend and communicates using pictures attached to a strip with Velcro, and the other class members with their various disabilities, all are part of her world. Obviously, the school has worked with Livvie to try to teach her to control her behavior, to try to find ways to calm herself and prevent tantrums, but Livvie finds herself many times in situations where she just can't react to properly.

Which introduces the plot of the story.   The family has had to move, over and over, because Livvie outlives her welcome with the landlord.  Or with the neighbors.  Her behavior (especially the noises and the tantrums) disturb, or frighten,then the family is evicted, and the family is on the move again.

When the story opens, they are living in a old, wornout trailer, and soon after they are being served still another eviction notice.  The family must move again.

This situation rings true also.  It isn't easy being poor, and I am glad this issue was explored in great detail in this book.  The author took some of this from personal experience in her own childhood, and it is something well deserving of exploration.  It is also obvious that the small town is dying, but the family stays there because it is familiar to their daughter...and it is so hard for people with autism to accept change.  My brother in law struggles with that almost daily.

Livvie realizes this housing situation is because of her behavior (which she tries so hard to control but the control just isn't there despite her best intentions), and she comes up with a very special plan to find a new house....with the help of a factory whistle from her childhood and a dead cat.  (yes, you'll have to read the book to find out how.)

The other part of the story I felt rang true was the relationship Livvie had with her two sisters.  It was complicated.  They loved her but there was also anger and resentment, and the complex relationships were explored as the length of the book permitted.   The parents were loving and patient, and Livvie was fortunate to have grown up in a stable family.  Not all children with autism (nor do all children, obviously) do.

The teachers in Livvie's life are also portrayed sympathetically.  Few people realize the job that special ed teachers have - we are lucky to have these dedicated individuals.  After a series of substitutes (and those scenes rang true also!) a very caring teacher enters Livvie's life and sparks change in this young adolescent.

Where did the book fail?  I think, as a narrator, that there was a lot of inconsistency.  Livvie (who is severely autistic and can barely read or write, although she is far from "stupid") has quite a vocabulary and command of words as narrator that just seemed inconsistent with how she was portrayed.  There was also a great deal of inconsistency in how Livvie was able to understand non-verbal communication (this, incidentally, is a major challenge for people with autism.)  In some instances, Livvie could not understand or "label" emotions but just a couple of minutes later would be describing quite complex emotions showing on the faces of characters.  She would ponder her inability to read a certain type of emotion and several pages later, she would be reading the emotion quite well.  I realize some of this was to move the story along, but to me this aspect actually distracted me from the story.

Still, in all, a most worthwhile book which I would recommend to anyone.

I understand this is a debut novel and I very much look forward to this author's future work.  I've done a little reading in her blog, and she sounds like a woman I would like to meet one day.  Maybe at a small town library.  Like the ones in Northwest Arkansas that I frequented 30 years ago and....maybe something to blog about one day.

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