I like to write about books with autistic characters in them. Silence by Michelle Sagara isn’t a book with an autistic protagonist; it is a book about Emma, a neurotypical teenager dealing with grief and loss, who develops an ability to see and interact with the dead. The autistic character, a boy Emma’s age named Michael, is secondary. Yet Michael is also central to what Silence was intended to be about. Sagara, who is the parent of an autistic boy herself, explains in an interview with John Scalzi:
She was part of a group of friends, and they kept an eye out for my son… Why not these girls? Girls who were best friends and who supported each other (often by phone even in the early years) and who, while having lives entirely of their own also had the compassion to keep an eye on an awkward ASD child? It’s a paranormal, it’s contemporary, but why can’t the story be about girls like these?
In other words, Michael is central to the book, not because of himself, but because Emma and her friends help take care of him and that makes them good people. In fact, Emma’s goodness and compassion are central parts of the book’s plot. Most people who develop powers like Emma’s become evil necromancers who exploit the dead, but Emma only wants to help them – a fact which conveniently convinces a local group of necromancer hunters not to kill her.
This is where a lot of my misgivings about the book come from, and is complicated to talk about. I don’t want to suggest that it is somehow bad or undesirable to provide clueful help to a disabled person. Yet I think a lot of us with disabilities will feel a familiar wince at the idea of being a charity case – of being valuable, not for ourselves, but so that someone else can earn goodness points by helping us.
By and large, Emma does do things for Michael – walking him to school, explaining things to him, helping him prepare for unexpected changes of routine – that seem reasonable and genuinely helpful. And Michael’s impairments and needs are described without exaggeration or demonization. Moreover, Michael does have other demonstrated character traits in the book besides impairments. It takes a few chapters before these traits begin to visibly emerge, but they do. He’s good with children, and this proves useful as the ghosts of children begin to appear. He’s one of the first to matter-of-factly accept the news of Emma’s experiences, without any complaints about her being or sounding “crazy.” And since his brain works differently, he’s also less affected by certain necromancer spells than other characters – which allows him, in a crowning moment, to save Emma by hitting a necromancer with one of his D&D books.
(Though after that, the idiosyncratic reaction to magic isn’t mentioned very much and doesn’t become a very big part of the plot, which arguably stops it from veering into Magical Disabled Person territory. I personally think that, since autistic people’s brain wiring is known to be different, and we frequently have idiosyncratic reactions to medicine and other things, an idiosyncratic reaction to magic is a perfectly logical thing for some of us to have!)
What’s missing here is not any aspect of how Michael is depicted, per se – what’s missing is something subtler in Emma’s depiction, and in Emma’s point of view.
Emma is devoted to helping Michael, and as a result, she focuses on the problems he has and the things he needs help with. She occasionally also acknowledges what he’s good at, but these moments go by very quickly. What’s missing, even at these positive moments, is any sense that Emma likes Michael – that, in addition to wanting to help him, she might consider him as any sort of friend.
(Michael does have actual friends, by the way, in the form of two boys who talk to him about Dungeons and Dragons at lunchtime. They get very little screen time.)
Sagara is clearly trying to pull this part off, with occasional lines like this one:
“Emma has always gotten along with Michael because Emma sees Michael. She doesn’t see what she wants him to be, she doesn’t see what he lacks. She just sees what he is, and she understands it.”
But that insistence on “seeing”, and on how wonderful Emma is with him, falls a little bit flat when her normal internal response is more like this:
[Eric] listened to Michael without eye rolling, which was pretty much the only requirement in a lunch companion at this table.
Not, Emma thought, if she was being fair, that she didn’t sometimes engage in eye rolling, but she felt she’d earned that, and Michael understood what it meant when she did it.
It’s not that Emma ever seems to dislike Michael, or to be bigoted against him in any really obvious way. It’s that, aside from wanting to help him, her emotions towards him always seem to be some strange mix of tolerance, pity, amusement and mild annoyance.
These would be realistic emotions if Emma were, say, Michael’s older sister. But in a classmate who associates with him of her own free will, they strike me as strange. As an autistic reader, particularly in the first half of the book, watching Michael through Emma’s eyes mostly just makes me kind of sad. Like a constant reminder that, yes, this is really how we come across to other people, even the ones who are mostly very helpful and get praise for how good they are with us.
It’s a subtle problem, and compared to the problems in many other books about the caretakers of autistic people, it’s a minor one. Michael at least gets basic respect and a social group, accuracy in how his autism is portrayed, and a few things to do in the plot. For a neurotypical reader interested in books with autistic secondary characters, this might not be a bad book at all. But for autistic readers looking for a character they can identify with, I don’t think I can recommend it very much.