Just like the first time I read Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, I profoundly identified with the protagonist, Jason Blake, age twelve and autistic. Wandering around the young adult section of the bookstore three years ago, I felt myself magnetically pulled to Anything But Typical. Working at a special education preschool, I was grappling with my own social and emotional differences, and I couldn’t help but ally myself more with the autistic children than with my well-meaning but clearly non-autistic coworkers. With its allusion to not being about a “neurotypical” kid, the title drew me in.
Why do I identify so closely with Jason Blake? Is it because we are both writers? Is it because we both have the same three letters—ASD, autism spectrum disorder—referring to us? Maybe it’s because, through narrating Jason’s specific story from his own perspective, Nora Raleigh brings us all closer to the reality of being human. It is his outsider status as autistic that allows him to achieve the insights about the social world in which he lives. As Jason observes from the background, he shows us the cruelty, the love, and the connections that we share as flawed people with a range of abilities. His position as outsider or different allows him to make astute observations about his family’s dynamics and his classmates, whose bullying behavior is less pathologized than his own autistic behavior.
Jason’s struggles don’t fit into mainstream portrayals of autistic characters written for conflicts or comic relief. His dentist tells him that he brushes his teeth too firmly. He can’t recognize the faces of many of the adults or girls in his life. When he is anxious, he describes the “bugs in my brain […] their wings spinning, caught inside the glass hood of the lamp, vibrating in desperation” (128)—and how his younger brother Jeremy helps calm him down. At times, I felt Baskin had airlifted certain passages straight out of my own brain. I brushed my teeth so roughly that I chipped off enamel and needed surface fillings. The other day, my friend stood right in front of me, and I didn’t recognize her face, which left her asking “Are you okay?” to my blank stare and me admitting, “Probably not.” My anxiety feels like itching underneath my skin, inside my ears and my head. It is in the details that Nora Raleigh Baskin captures the experience of being on the autism spectrum.
Right from the start, I can tell that Baskin isn’t interested in writing the same tired trope of an autistic character unable to access emotions and feel compassion. Jason is deeply caring. His complicated yet loving relationships with his parents and younger brother, his willingness to help his peers at school even when they don’t have his best interests at heart, and his desire to connect with a peer Rebecca through a young writers’ website are some of the ways that Baskin subtly battles harmful stereotypes about autistic people lacking empathy and preferring isolation. Jason wonders, “Why do people want everyone to act just like they do? Talk like they do. Look like they do. Act like they do. And if you don’t— If you don’t, people make the assumption that you do not feel what they feel. And then they make the assumption— That you must not feel anything at all.” (14)
Baskin also manages to showcase Jason’s talents without writing them as savant skills. Jason is a gifted writer and so much of the story centers on his relationship with words, time in an online writing community trying to befriend Rebecca, conflicts surrounding a creative writing convention, and the long story he’s writing about a dwarf named Bennu. As Jason writes about Bennu’s decisions to either fit in or remain unique yet misunderstood, he provides an inner glimpse into his feelings and highlights the messiness of pride, loneliness, disabled identity, and difference.
Writing is having a voice. “When I write, I can be heard. And known. But nobody has to look at me. Nobody has to see me at all,” says Jason (3). Writing is a passion as well as a strategy that Jason employs to communicate with and connect to the outside world. With an abundance of stereotypes about the autism spectrum, language ability, and modes of thought, it’s refreshing to meet an autistic character who’s word-obsessed and literary. Jason is not Thinking in Pictures so much as Thinking in Letters. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time spelling words and rearranging letters on signs in my head, and tracing words I heard in conversation on my pant leg or in the air. So I appreciate Jason’s fascination with words. When Jason is sad and hurt, he can’t make himself write at all: “I never want to put words together, and sounds, and letters. That have meaning and that don’t. Sounds like poetry and weapons. That hurt, and wound and lie, and those that fly. And soar. In which I find freedom. There will be no more.” (167) He grasps his ability to make people understand more through writing. His writer’s identity may be the most important identity he has. These details are specific, unique, and make Jason’s character more than a stereotype. These details are where Baskin captures the autistic experience.
Unlike relating to peers and behaving in “appropriate” ways, Jason knows he’s good at language. He is proud of how others turn to him—and unaware that they are merely using him for his skills. He likes his language arts class at school “because everyone asks me for help. ‘Jason, can you fill in this last page in my vocabulary book?’ Kids who don’t ever talk to me otherwise. ‘But make the handwriting messier so it looks like mine.’” (107) Two popular girls who were in my tenth grade LA honors class took an interest in sitting with me and I felt happy that they liked me, especially when I so often felt invisible and lonely. I didn’t realize that they didn’t like me so much as they liked the impact my understanding of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” had on their group work grades. Jason captures pain of being socially naïve and goodhearted.
Jason’s misunderstandings of relationships are much more realistic and worthwhile than the frustrating storyline that shows up in pop culture: a dorky awkward person with autistic traits magically reels in an appealing friendly partner (almost certainly of the opposite sex). Some may argue that Jason’s failed relationships follow an autism stereotype—that we don’t want, or can’t have, romance or sexuality. Jason’s online companionship does not blossom into the relationship he imagines it to be, and for me, this is a positive selling point. It does everyone a disservice to watch autistic characters easily find romance and friendship, when in reality relationships are often more difficult, especially for most of us on the autism spectrum. The book contains a feeling of hope that always has an undertone of sadness, and that comes in part from Jason’s realism. Happily-ever-after wouldn’t fit this book’s narrative, but its ending is far from tragic.
Three years ago, I wasn’t ready to verbalize my beliefs about how to best work with kids on the spectrum or to share my personal experiences with my coworkers at the special education preschool. Thankfully, Baskin captured the essence in Anything But Typical. I wanted my fellow assistant teachers to understand, so I dog-eared the page corners and passed the novel around with an urgency. She got Jason so right in so many ways that he doesn’t feel contrived for one second. Three major victories that Baskin accomplishes in Anything But Typical are:
- Jason Blake’s story is not only about being autistic, but when it is about his autism, it feels believable.
- She demonstrates how some of Jason’s obstacles are from his disability but others are from people mistreating him, a lack of understanding and acceptance of difference, and his environment. It doesn’t feel like a “moral of the story” or “teaching moment”, but examples of ableism, unacceptance, and frustration with impairment are woven into the natural progression of the story.
- The intimate portrayal of Jason’s life completely shuts down prevailing stereotypes/misbeliefs about empathy, emotions, and the autism spectrum.
Certainly I understand why Baskin won the Schneider Family Book Award for this book.
Although Baskin hasn’t identified herself as being on the spectrum, her portrayal of Jason is more reflective of the autistic community than the typical portrayals in mainstream media. For that reason, I want to pass out copies to autism family members and future special educators, therapists, social workers, and disability program managers. Jason Blake’s ASD is central to Anything But Typical. But, like in real life, autism spectrum disorder alone is never the whole story, and Baskin does a good job balancing Jason’s autism with his writing life, family, school, and budding friendship. The details make him real. Nora Raleigh Baskin has succeeded in creating an authentic autistic character who is anything but stereotypical.