The best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) received multiple awards and high praise for its portrayal of a disabled protagonist, Christopher Boone, who is usually described as having Asperger’s/autism.
Mark Haddon wrote it after (in his own words) doing no research other than reading an essay and a few popular articles about and by autistic people, and over the years, both Haddon and his publisher(s) have retreated from describing the protagonist as having Asperger’s, possibly in response to criticisms of its accuracy. A quick survey of reviews on Amazon indicates that readers often believe it to be a convincing portrayal, although many do not appear to have any exposure to autism other than Curious Incident.
The book is told from Christopher’s viewpoint, with Christopher as the ostensible author of the book we are reading, with writing help from his mentor and teacher Siobhan. Christopher’s narration didn’t resonate with my own experience of autism, and most autistic people I’ve spoken to didn’t relate to him either (though some do). However, my purpose here isn’t to discuss whether Christopher is really autistic, or to give an overall critique of the book. My specific point is that this book portrays its autistic protagonist in ways that will give readers negative, incorrect, and in some cases abusive ideas about autistic people. You should not recommend this book to autistic people or their families or friends, or to anyone else, especially not as a good representation of autism.
Christopher is portrayed as elitist, violent, and lacking empathy. If this book were my only or primary exposure to representations of autistic people, I would think they were threatening and cared only about themselves. The way the author chooses to portray Christopher makes me worry that some people will assume that harmful treatment toward autistic people is okay, or even deserved. Even in the best case scenario, this book does not give an inexperienced reader any sense of how an autistic person could be an interesting conversation partner, or a friend, or a kind person.
Christopher thinks everyone is less intelligent than him: He praises his own intelligence on multiple occasions, while describing all the other disabled kids at his school as “stupid” (43) and simultaneously trivializing their disabilities by saying that everyone has difficulty learning some things. Christopher looks down on non-disabled people as well, saying that “most people are almost blind and they don’t see most things and there is lots of spare capacity in their heads and it is filled with things which aren’t connected and are silly.” (144) Haddon may be trying to show the reader that Christopher sees non-autistic people in the same way they often see him in the novel; regardless, the effect is that Christopher looks intolerant and dismissive.
In his favorite dream, almost everyone in the world dies, preferably in ways which don’t leave bodies everywhere, so that he can do whatever he wants, such as breaking into other people’s houses and taking their things. The only people remaining are people like him who are very shy and who he rarely has to see. Wishing everyone you knew was dead (he does not describe anyone else as similar to him) is pretty horrible, and many autistic people would be devastated at losing family members and friends. Christopher is not at all bothered by this.
There are numerous places in the story where a non-autistic character would feel or show empathy, and Christopher does neither (apart from one instance where he suggests bringing food and a card to his mother when she is in the hospital). This contrasts heavily with my own experience and that of most autistic people I know and have read about, and it reinforces the harmful (and inaccurate) stereotype that autistic people don’t have empathy.
Christopher is violent on multiple occasions, without apparent regret or internal conflict: In the past, he hit a student hard enough to send her to the hospital when she pulled his hair, and broke his mother’s toes by throwing a cutting board at her after she threw food across the room. He punches a police officer in response to being touched. His violent acts are portrayed as having causes, but none of them came across to me as narratively justified by his internal or external experiences, with the exception of hitting his father in self-defense. Threatening people who tried to help him in the subway particularly stood out, as did his desire to stab someone in response to test anxiety (he eventually decides not to stab his invigilator because he “was very tall and if I hit him or stabbed him with my Swiss Army knife he wouldn’t be my invigilator for the rest of the exam.” ).
Some autistic people are violent, in particular in response to sensory overwhelm. That does not make them undeserving of support and help, any more than it makes it okay to overlook the violence or fail to protect other people from it. But, most autistic people are not violent. The extensive violence made me uncomfortable because it sends the message that this is what being autistic is like.
If you recommend this book to someone as a portrayal of autism, this is how it represents autistic people: elitist, unconcerned for others, and frequently, remorselessly violent.
Christopher is treated terribly by almost every other character and almost everyone overlooks it.
Christopher is abandoned, deceived, abused, gaslit, and insulted, often by authority figures. Most other characters overlook or actively attempt to justify this. Equally disturbing is that on many occasions Christopher has no apparent emotional or physical reaction to abuse or insults. This particularly bothers me because it suggests that abuse and insults don’t harm autistic people, although they do, sometimes very greatly.
[SPOILERS throughout the rest of this section. Note that this also contains extensive descriptions of child abuse and neglect.]
His father abuses, deceives, and gaslights him, and kills a dog, and other characters let it pass.
Christopher’s father swears at and insults him, and has threatened to hit him on multiple occasions (47) which Christopher justifies as a reaction to his “Behavioral Problems.” It’s implied, though not explicitly stated, that he knocks Christopher unconscious during a fight. Christopher’s mentor and teacher Siobhan inquires briefly about his bruises, but when Christopher doesn’t want to talk about it further, she never brings it up again (or if she does, it isn’t mentioned). Throughout the book, no character indicates that verbal abuse or violence is wrong when done to Christopher, only when it is done by Christopher (he describes others telling him he should not hit other kids at his school or call them stupid).
Christopher’s father lies to him for at least a year and a half, telling him his mother has died, and hiding the letters the mother mails to Christopher. He tells Christopher he did this “for your good” (114) and says “I would never, ever do anything to hurt you” (219), despite having actually done so in various ways. His mother is upset by the deceit when she finds out, but no one else is.
When Christopher tells other characters that his father stabbed the father’s ex-girlfriend’s dog to death with a garden fork, they disbelieve him or overlook it. A neighbor says she’s “sure that there’s been some dreadful misunderstanding.” (134) Two separate policemen are skeptical or uninterested. The only person in the book who is shocked and believing is Mr. Shears, Christopher’s father’s romantic rival. His reaction is limited to a single exclamation (“Jumping Jack Christ,” 192). His mother’s only reaction to the news is to chastise Mr. Shears for swearing. I don’t think Haddon is endorsing their reactions to him, but he is portraying a non-reaction as normative and without consequences.
Because the dog’s owner declines to press charges, there are ultimately no consequences to his father for killing the dog other than a rupture in Christopher’s relationship with him, which he tries to pressure Christopher into repairing by focusing exclusively on how much Christopher is hurting him (218).
Christopher’s mother supports the reconciliation, and he ultimately has to stay at his father’s house between when school ends and when his mother gets off work. He is justifiably terrified, hiding in his room and pushing the bed against the door to try to prevent his father getting in. In response, his father tries to talk to him through the door and sometimes “[sits]on the floor outside the door quietly for a long time.” (217) Not only does no one object to any of this, but the emotional tone of this section seems to indicate that the author himself does not recognize how threatening and creepy it is.
Eventually their relationship improves because the abuser who killed his ex-girlfriend’s dog in an uncontrollable rage buys Christopher his own dog to protect him. The dog then lives at Christopher’s father’s house, where it will presumably be perfectly safe.
His mentor and teacher Siobhan helps Christopher with at least the early parts of the book, including discussing it with him and editing it for grammar and spelling. She’s absent (without explanation) from the latter part of the book, even after Christopher has returned to school, but it seems likely he would have shared it with her. If so, she would have been aware of all of the above. This would have been a good opportunity for someone to stand up for Christopher or at least convey to him (and the reader) that he does not deserve abuse or neglect, but it doesn’t happen. Because she is shown as more supportive of Christopher than other characters in the book, and specifically because she is a professional charged with helping him learn effective and appropriate social responses, her absence is particularly notable.
His mother hits Christopher and blames her marriage difficulties, affair, and subsequent abandonment of Christopher on him.
Christopher describes his mother as having hit him on multiple occasions (82) as well as repeatedly threatening to institutionalize him (48). She describes him as the cause of the conflict between his parents and their hate for each other, a viewpoint he has internalized: “I used to think that Mother and Father might get divorced. That was because they had lots of arguments and sometimes they hated each other. This was because of the stress of looking after someone who has Behavioral Problems like I have.” (45-46)
In a letter to Christopher, she describes his actions as leading to conflict with his father and eventually her affair. She tells him the trigger for her finally was realizing Christopher didn’t “really need [her]at all. And somehow that was even worse than you and me arguing all the time because it was like I was invisible.” (109)
His father is angry that his mother had an affair and left, and that she abandoned Christopher, but no one is shown as saying, “You shouldn’t hit your kid, threaten to institutionalize them, and convince them that all this plus your affair and abandonment were their fault.”
Haddon encourages the (non-autistic) reader to sympathize with Christopher’s parents – even when he’s supposedly writing from Christopher’s point of view. Combined with his systematic dampening of Christopher’s own emotional responses, he almost seems to be making excuses for the parents – or at least encouraging the reader to see this kind of inexcusable (and illegal) behavior as unavoidable.
Other characters insult him because they realize he’s disabled or naive.
There’s also a notable absence of characters who recognize how much help he needs navigating public transportation; instead, various characters insult him when they realize that he’s disabled or naïve, calling him “a prize specimen” (152) and a “bloody handful” (160), asking if he’s “for real” (172), etc. Christopher doesn’t appear aware that he’s being insulted, nor does he appear bothered by it; it’s allowed to pass without comment.
Abuse, bullying, and casual insults are unfortunately common experiences for autistic people, and it isn’t inaccurate of Haddon to portray them. But the way he portrays them is terrible. By showing Christopher as not noticing or responding to insults and abuse, he suggests that being cruel to autistic people isn’t that bad. Readers who see an autistic person being mistreated are less likely to stand up for them if they believe they won’t even notice it. By showing him being treated badly by multiple people he meets in public, Haddon sets the expectation that this kind of treatment is universal, inevitable, and normative. These interactions could have been used to show non-autistic characters modeling effective support skills, but were not.
Curious Incident portrays the autistic protagonist as unsympathetic, elitist, violent, and lacking in empathy. It portrays abuse, abandonment, and gaslighting as a normal (or even justified) response.
The book normalizes abuse, presents the autistic protagonist as responsible for it, and suggests that he is not harmed by much of it. This happens toward autistic people in real life, too, and it is very harmful. That is the strongest reason you should not recommend this book. Instead, please consider recommending books that don’t normalize abuse, that acknowledge the harm it does to us, and that call out characters who abuse and victim-blame.
There are much better books about autistic characters, some of which are being reviewed here this month. Recommend one of those instead!