I was excited to read Colin Fischer for two reasons: one, it’s one of the few YA books I know of with a textually acknowledged autistic protagonist that’s actually written by an autistic author, as co-author Stentz has spoken openly about his being on the spectrum; two, the book came recommended to me.
Unfortunately, I was not a fan of the book, which proves again how subjective the issue of representation can be.
Colin Fischer doesn’t like to be touched. Or the colour blue. He avoids eye contact unless absolutely necessary. Sherlock Holmes has a place of honour on his wall. His room is a shine to clear-headed logic. When a phone rings loudly in class, Colin can’t cope. So he barks like a dog. But when a gun goes off in the school cafeteria he isn’t scared. He’s curious … Colin Fischer is determined to discover who fired that gun.
From the successful scriptwriters of X-Men First Class and Thor comes Colin Fischer – the unlikeliest detective hero you’ll ever meet. Entertaining, original and touching, Colin Fischer is this year’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
This set off some warning bells: I’ve written previously about the annoying trend of flap copy being more a description of the autistic character’s quirks rather than the plot, and the comparison to Curious Incident is a turn-off as well. Still, authors often aren’t responsible for their flap copy, so I pushed on—only to be immediately slapped in the face by an introduction from author Lev Grossman. This introduction is beyond alienating. It talks about “him” (Colin) and “us,” assuming a non-autistic audience; it literally compares Colin to an alien; it talks about Colin “pretending to be human;” and it talks about the “lesson” Colin is here to teach “us.”
But the author isn’t responsible for the introduction either. I carried on.
Unfortunately, the book itself suffered from similar problems. Colin Fischer is told from an omniscient point of view, so although we follow Colin for the most part, we get glimpses into other people’s heads and sometimes even see characters interacting without Colin’s presence. This has the unfortunate side effect of often describing Colin from other people’s point of view. When we’re only given other people’s puzzlement–rarely Colin’s own explanations–it distances us from his perspective. Sometimes the narrative even seems to “disagree” with Colin’s reactions. As an autistic reader, I wanted to connect with the character, but the narrative forcibly placed me in other people’s minds, mimicking the way the mainstream perspective of autism is often from a non-autistic person’s point of view. This distant narrative goes on and on, occasionally using phrases like “unlike most children,” “no one knew why,” and “unlike most people” to describe Colin’s behavior.
An example of this distant perspective is the book’s description of Colin’s room. He organizes his possessions in various stacks, using a system that, the book explains, only makes sense to him. A description of these piles emphasizes their seemingly random contents. I read on, intrigued. I wanted to discover what linked these items together. (I’m autistic. Finding patterns is what we do.) Yet, the book never explains the system. Even though Colin is ostensibly the main character, the reader is shut out from his own head and explanations, offering an outsider’s puzzled view of his actions. This inevitably casts Colin as incomprehensible. As weird. As Other.
Relatedly, it struck me how rarely we experience Colin’s emotions. Because many autistic people struggle to express their emotions in a way that’s recognizable (or “acceptable”) to others, there’s a common perception that autistic people don’t have emotions. The book seems to reinforce this: Colin is rarely seen as anything but intrigued, confused, or panicked. When major things happen, such as his head being dunked in the toilet, Colin miraculously making the basketball team, Colin going to school without his aide for the first time, or even his brother straight-up shouting “I HATE YOU!” Colin shows … nothing. No fear or hurt or embarrassment, no pride or excitement, merely a detached observation before he moves on with his life.
These detached observations form a big part of the book, as every chapter is preceded by an excerpt from Colin’s notebook. We see him scribbling things down mid-scene as well. Sometimes these notes are interesting or humorous, but I felt they were pushed too far. Many observations read as “alien observing humans”–they’re scientific in a way that didn’t strike me as realistic even for a scientifically inclined teen. Take this note from page 18 as an example:
Sandy Ryan in romantic relationship with Eddie. Likely consequence of breast development and prominence of secondary sexual characteristics. Investigate.
On page 22, there’s more talk of breasts that struck me as unrealistic, this time in dialogue form rather than notes:
“Your breasts got bigger,” Colin announced. Melissa’s cheeks ran red, and she laughed a little coughing laugh. She was used to Colin, but never quite prepared for him. Colin looked back at his cheat sheet. “Embarrassed,” he observed aloud, erasing PLEASED and writing EMBARRASSED over her head. “Don’t be. Breast development is a perfectly normal reaction to elevated hormone levels during puberty. Interestingly, it doesn’t proceed at a uniform rate …”
“It can be accelerated by a number of environmental factors, so it’s not just genetics. For example, if your mother–”
“Colin,” Melissa interrupted. “Please. Stop speaking.”
Colin did. He waited patiently, remembering, as [his aide]Marie had often advised, that sometimes people wanted to engage him in a discussion and had interesting observations and interjections to make.
“I … know all that stuff,” she said.
As Colin has previously had his aide chastise him for staring at her boobs too much, and he’s a teenage boy, I find it extremely hard to believe that nobody has ever called him on not making these kinds of observations. Even if he’s thoughtlessly infodumping, there’s no acknowledgment later on where he remembers or realizes that he was inappropriate or Melissa was uncomfortable. (Even if he may not understand or agree with the reasons for either.) In other words, Colin’s clueless babbling feels purely played for laughs.
What also bothered me was Colin being a prodigy in several ways. He not only has astonishing math skills, he becomes a basketball prodigy over the course of a single gym class by mathematically calculating the method of throwing the ball. He goes from barely being able to run to consistently scoring without even hitting the net. Later, he somehow calms down an angry dog by staring it down. These skills are both unlikely and cliché–super special autistics with “mysterious skills” are very common in media and public perception.
A quick list of other aspects I wasn’t keen on: Colin’s brother loathes him for how weird he is and how accommodating his parents are, which is portrayed with little nuance and no emotions on Colin’s end; he observes subtle differences in expressions despite needing a cheat sheet to recognize any expressions at all; Asperger’s is mentioned as being “related to” autism rather than being an autistic disorder. What also struck me as odd is that his school is said to be supportive and accommodating, but we didn’t get much proof of this. When Colin is purposefully taunted in class and ends up barking from stress, the principal accepts that it wasn’t his fault, but she also threatens Colin with punishment if he “acts out” again. In addition, his gym teacher ignores a note from his therapy team that he can skip gym. The narrative appears to condone those attitudes.
Colin has several traits which are true for some or many people with autism, but are at the same time so overused that they’ve become a cliché. For example: the statement that affective empathy (as opposed to cognitive empathy) is “completely alien” to him, his love of trains, and his hatred of all human contact. While these things aren’t necessarily unrealistic or problematic in and of themselves, they do fall neatly in line with common portrayals and perceptions of autism. We need more autistic characters, period, but I think we especially need more autistic characters who show the wide variety of autistic people in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, interests, traits … Colin, instead, aligns in nearly every way with the popular image of “high-functioning” autistic people as being a socially awkward, math/logic/train-obsessed, straight, white, middle-class teenage boy.
Finally, at the end, Colin is shown as not minding–or even noticing–Melissa’s touch, as well as actively seeking out a friend’s touch. It also mentions him not being reliant on the scripts he’s used earlier in the book. Symptoms becoming less extreme near the narrative’s end is common in portrayals of autistic people and is invariably seen as a positive development. While it’s not on the same scale as the disability cure, it does portray autistic traits as undesirable and negative, and shows the “overcoming” of them as a goal.
After all that negativity, I have to point out that the book was a fast read, and I did like several aspects of how the autism was treated. Despite the stereotypes and distant narrative, Colin is a likable character who’s capable, interesting, and adaptable, and he both forms a friendship and develops a love interest over the course of the book. Other elements about the handling of autism that I liked:
- Colin loves jumping the trampoline, as it helps him think–this kind of vestibular stimulation sounds kind of awesome and made me want to seek out a trampoline myself to give it a try.
- There’s a description of how much he hates the sound of the school bell and basically freezes whenever it rings, which I empathized with.
- Before his father touches him, he gives him proper notice so that Colin can prepare himself. (Unfortunately, this is immediately followed by Colin saying he understands his parents’ need for touch, as he has “read about it in a book.”)
- Once, his mother takes note of Colin becoming increasingly stressed in a social situation, and actively avoids touching him as she asks whether he needs to get out of there. I like these small acknowledgments that he’s part of a family–that people know him, understand his reactions, and accommodate him when possible.
- Near the end, Colin starts infodumping about asparagus and is interrupted. However, afterward, his dad actually turns back to Colin and asks him to continue talking. So often, our infodumps are disregarded and interrupted, and it was marvelous seeing his dad actually treat what Colin has to say with respect and interest.
- The book offers some lovely details when Colin takes a trip to the mall, such as Colin researching beforehand exactly what he wants to buy and reading all the reviews; Colin loathing perfume counters at store entrances; and the way the mall first scared Colin but he slowly became used to it, first by being driven into the parking lot, then walking to the entrance, then touching the entrance, et cetera.
- Colin once read that it takes longer for people to search for a parking spot near the entrance than it would to take the first parking spot they see and walk to the entrance instead. Since then, he insists that his parents always take the first parking spot they see. This was so recognizable that I laughed.
I liked those elements and truly wanted to love this book. In the end, though, it falls so perfectly in line with many autistic tropes and stereotypes, and distances us from the character to such an extent, that I was left with mixed-to-negative feelings and a lot of disappointment.