When I received the chance to review Al Capone Does My Shirts for Disability in Kidlit, I was close to giving up on reading books that had main or secondary characters with autism. Too many times I’ve had neurotypical friends and family recommend me books with autistic characters, and put them down feeling dismayed at both the demeaning portrayals and the thought that people close to me thought they were good representations of autism. Thus, I picked up Al Capone Does My Shirts with a fair amount of trepidation.
Natalie is based on the author’s sister, who has autism. Since autism is such a multi-faceted condition, in my experience the result of authors writing from research alone is often a stereotyped portrayal. Neurotypical relatives writing about autism is not without its problems—it can lead to an overemphasis on the negative aspects of autism, or solely on how the autistic person affects the neurotypical people around them. However, I feel that if one is going to read a book with autistic characters written by a neurotypical author, a neurotypical author with an autistic family member is likely to create a better portrayal than one with no personal experience.
This book takes place in the 1930s. It is about a boy named Moose whose family moves to Alcatraz, an island off San Francisco where convicts are housed. The most notorious of these criminals is Al Capone, a man who has a lot of influence in both criminal and noncriminal circles. When Moose’s sister Natalie is rejected for placement at the Esther P. Marinoff boarding school for learning-impaired children, Moose has to find a way to help her—and comes to the conclusion that the best way is to ask Al Capone to find her a place in the school.
The afterword contained a good sign: Natalie is based on the author’s sister, who has autism. Generally, if a neurotypical person is writing about an autistic character, I feel the problematic nature of this is somewhat mitigated if they have a close relationship with an autistic person. Since autism is such a multi-faceted condition, in my experience the result of authors writing from research alone is often a stereotyped portrayal.
Natalie captured my interest immediately for two reasons. The first is that among the reasons for her rejection from the boarding school, one is that it’s for younger children, and Natalie is almost sixteen. Moose and Natalie’s mother pretends that she’s ten because, as the mother puts it, “She won’t have a chance at sixteen. No one will take her. No one cares about an adult that isn’t right.” I liked that this book addressed the issue of autistic people becoming adults; so many books discuss autistic children as if they will never grow up.
The other reason is that Natalie is neither “high-functioning” (a term I loathe) nor nonverbal, which seem to be the only types of autism that exist in literature. She is someone who has many “severe” traits, but is also very intelligent and loves her family—characteristics not often ascribed to severely autistic characters. This nuance, which also debunks the destructive idea that autistic people don’t have empathy, increased my good opinion of this book.
Moose’s treatment of his sister is also nuanced and complex. He has understandable if unfortunate resentment of his role as Natalie’s caretaker. Yet he is also protective of her and is often shown and described as the one who understands Natalie best.
There are some parts in the book which still give me pause. Natalie has a savant-like facility with numbers. This isn’t necessarily bad—there are many autistic people who have these abilities—but it is a bit of a trope in literature about autism, and as an autistic person who is terrible at math I’m kind of tired of it.
At one point Natalie receives tutoring from a woman named Mrs. Kelly. The first thing Mrs. Kelly does is declare that Natalie is no longer allowed to stim or to engage in obsessive behavior. As Moose aptly puts it: “Nat’s not supposed to do anything she actually likes to do.” Many autistic don’t people believe that trying to eliminate obsessive behavior is actually helpful, and see it as catering to neurotypicals’ desire for autistic people to look more “normal.” Whether this actually helps Natalie, as shown in the book, is ambiguous. Moose’s mother claims that it is, but Moose is skeptical—with good reason, because his mother has tried many experimental treatments before and tried to convince herself that they’re working. (I also appreciated that “the mom who tries everything to ‘cure’ her autistic child” is shown as sympathetic yet problematic.) When their parents aren’t around, Moose secretly lets Natalie indulge in her obsessions.
Overall, I was very pleased with Al Capone Does My Shirts and how it depicts autism. Moose and Natalie are complex and endearing characters who remain with you long after the book is closed. And since one is neurotypical and one is autistic, it’s nice to see that the description applies to both.