Rose Howard is trying to find her place in the world. She lives alone with her father, who works at the local garage, and is very close with her uncle, who drives her to school and home again every day. Life isn’t always easy; Rose’s father spends most of his time in the pub, she doesn’t have many friends, and her school is poorly equipped to accommodate Rose’s autism:
Most of my classmates are ten years old or about to turn eleven. I’m almost twelve because no one is sure what to do with me in school. (ARC, p. 5)
… rests her hand on my arm when I blurt something out in the middle of math. Or, if I whap myself in the head and start to cry, she’ll say, “Rose, do you need to step into the hall for a moment?” (ARC, p.5-6)
Not surprisingly, her aide does not know how to deal with Rose’s manner of thinking at all. In fact, whenever Rose gets anxious or confused, her aide treats this as a tantrum, to be remedied by either removing her from the situation or by telling Rose to calm down (a narrative unfortunately—and I think unintentionally—supported by a scene further on in the story where Rose manages to swallow a panic attack simply because her father asks her nicely). Explaining situations to her—or even listening to why she’s upset—is not part of the skillset of the aide or even of Rose’s father.
Except when one day, Rose’s father brings home a stray dog for Rose. Rose names the dog Rain (a name with two homonyms—one of her obsessions) and Rain not only becomes a friend to her, but a comrade when trying to suss out Mr. Howard’s moods:
If my father comes home and doesn’t say anything, but walks into his own room, then Rain and I should not go near him at all. And I have to make Rain stay very quiet so she doesn’t annoy him or give him a headache. (ARC, p. 13)
Rose and Rain are inseparable, until Rain disappears in a storm, and Rose has to put all her planning skills to work to find her friend—which she does with strength and determination—only to face the possibility of losing Rain once more.
Rain Reign has many of the ingredients I love in a story: a girl on the spectrum, a strong family arc, a distinct lack of sugarcoating, and of course Rose’s fascination with words. I set out to love Rain Reign. Honestly, I wanted to love Rain Reign.
Unfortunately, I didn’t.
Because for all that Rose narrates the events of the book, and for all that there are moments when her voice is nuanced and shines—in the guilt she feels about her mother’s disappearance, in the way she tries to reach out to fellow classmates and both fails and succeeds—this is not the story of an autistic character written for an inclusive audience. This is a story about an autistic character written for a neurotypical audience. Beyond those first chapters, the nuanced scenes are few and far between. Instead, the story is written in a quintessential “Autism Voice” and, more and more, reading it felt like an exercise in being othered.
Autism Voice, noun
- The autistic character narrates everything in minute detail.
- The autistic character narrates emotional experiences and/or their emotions in a dispassionate, disconnected way.
- Moments of high emotion can also be recognized by an abundance of verbal tics.
In Rain Reign, all three of those aspects are present. The story is narrated by Rose, who does so very carefully, with regular signpost-y comments such as “The next part of my introduction is the setting of my story.” To a degree, this is fitting. The story shows Rose to be a very careful girl, both in the way she deals with her father’s drinking—knowing well when to disturb him and when to leave him be—and in the way she deals with the care of Rain. But many more characters across children’s literature are portrayed as careful and determined, yet their stories are told without that added narrative distance. It’s a quirk that seems to be reserved primarily for autistic characters.
At other points, too, it’s glaring that the nuances are continuously pushed aside for a far more stereotypical narrative. While I found Rose to be a strong and interesting character, she has to be explicitly framed as other. From the constant focus on her obsession with homonyms, numbers, prime numbers, weather patterns, and rules, to commonly understood examples of autism, like being overly literal in her reactions:
This might (mite) be (bee) sarcasm, which is like mockery. (p75)
While her behavior hints at emotional responses, it has to be made clear, again and again, that she could not actually have her own feelings, beyond that which she was taught:
I have thought of that triple homonym before, but I know this is not the time to mention it. This is the time for the feeling of friendliness. (p185)
It is rational. It is quirky. It is different. It is Other:
I begin to breathe very fast.
I think this is a sign of panic.
“Two, three, five, seven, eleven,” I say. “Two, three, five, seven, eleven.” (p90)
Because above all, “Autism Voice” seems to be based on one particularly pervasive stereotype: autistics do not experience emotions. We do not feel. (Therefore) We cannot be hurt. Our only understanding of emotions is one of rational definitions only.
It’s often repeated, widely accepted, and as such, a particularly harmful stereotype. After all, what stops us from mistreating our fellow humans if we claim to know they won’t be hurt anyway? Why should you believe us when we tell you we do hurt, when every stereotype claims autistics cannot be trusted with their own experiences?
While Rain Reign pleasantly surprised me by showing Rose’s empathy not only toward Rain, but also toward her father and uncle (both in very different ways), it continues to follow that tradition of denying autistic characters emotional agency.
And perhaps that is what made loving the book impossible for me. Because as an autistic person, it hurts that people still tell me to my face that I cannot feel, that I do not experience emotions the way “normal” people do. And this pervasive stereotype of the overly rational, uncaring autistic actively harms me and will continue to do so as long as it continues to be the main representation of autism.
For Rain Reign it is, at best, a missed opportunity. It is, at worst, another confirmation of a harmful and problematic misunderstanding of autism. Especially in a book whose underlying moral is one of challenging ourselves to step outside of our own perception, as is explicitly stated in the last chapter:
A few [homonyms]make lovely connections if you’re open to changing your perspective when you think about them.
Rain Reign is one of those books that, as a writer, makes me wonder about how we write diverse characters, but often, especially, disabled characters. Too often, stories about disability and disabled characters are written for a non-disabled audience. So too with Rain Reign.
And perhaps this is best exemplified, not by the story, but by the Author’s Note in the ARC, where the author states that she spent only a single morning talking with and observing students on the spectrum. That is not inclusion.
Reading this story feels like being observed, through a very biased lens. That is not inclusion.
A story about us, without us, is not inclusion. And it’s exactly children like Rose who crave that inclusion, recognition, acceptance, especially when they can’t find it at home or at school. We owe more to them. We owe more to ourselves.
 While some descriptions identify Rose as having both Asperger’s and OCD, the cover copy of the ARC does not do so. The book itself only mentions her “diagnosis of high-functioning autism” which, according to Rose, some people call Asperger’s Syndrome. This review will only focus on the representation of autism, but does so in the understanding that “high-functioning” is an inherently ableist description and that, while the DSM-V does denote severity levels, the term high-functioning itself has never been an official diagnosis.