For someone who always crows about wanting to read/see more autistic characters, I’ve actually read embarrassingly few books fitting that criterion. I’m continually hampered by the size of my TBR pile, deadlines, and an assortment of other issues, and usually only come across autistic characters by accident.
So when author Jennifer Castle offered to send me a copy of her latest novel—You Look Different in Real Life, a contemporary YA—to review on Disability in Kidlit, I jumped at the chance.
Going in, I was both curious and apprehensive; all I knew was that it featured an autistic character. I’m relieved to say I’m pleasantly surprised with how the character was portrayed, although I’m not without reservations.
The book is about five teenagers who starred in documentaries at ages five and eleven, and now, at age sixteen, the next installment awaits—but a lot of issues have cropped up between the five of them over the years. They’ve changed since age eleven, and not always in ways they’re happy with. The cameras and film-makers forcing them together brings all these issues to the surface.
This review focuses on Rory, one of the teenagers in the documentary, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at some point between ages eleven and sixteen. Though best friends since childhood with our narrator, Justine, they broke up due to Justine’s frustrations with Rory’s behavior. Justine shares various memories of Rory being unable to sleep over at Justine’s house, of Rory completely—and awkwardly—misreading situations, and Rory being bossy and always demanding that things go her way.
Since Justine is our point of view character, one can expect the portrayal of their relationship to be slanted to make Justine’s actions look sympathetic and understandable, but the narrative is surprisingly balanced; Justine knows she was wrong in unceremoniously dumping Rory, and there’s clear longing and regret woven into their current-day interactions.
In other words, Rory has an actual role in the story. She’s sympathetic, she’s funny, and her role is much more “Justine’s ex-best friend” than “the weird autistic one.” She has interests—obsessive ones, naturally, largely online-based—and gets to have complex feelings about both the situation they find themselves in and about Justine’s behavior old and new.
All of this delighted me: it’s such a change from the autistic characters I normally encounter in fiction, who are often reduced to props, and who rarely get to display emotions or opinions.
I was also quite pleased with the depiction of Rory’s autistic traits. I completely recognized myself in the way Rory will only briefly make eye contact, then look away—then making another brief moment of eye contact, then looking away again. I do that exact same thing. The way she forced out social niceties was familiar, as well. While I’ve become pretty good at making those things second nature over the years, they weren’t before. (As a teenager, I taught myself to say “good night” to people when parting ways in the evening, then accidentally blurted it out during mornings and afternoons as well.)
Her obsessive interests, her bossiness, the way she separates her food on her plate or aligns objects, her skill at navigating: it’s clear the author did her research instead of falling back on tired assumptions. Both Rory’s autism and the way she’s adapting and learning rang absolutely true to me.
There’s a lot to like, basically, but I did have some reservations. The biggest of these is that so much of Rory’s character and role in the plot are intrinsically tied into her autism. Examples:
- Her role is to be the ex-best friend–which is great–but the reason for the “ex” part is Rory’s autism.
- She’s the quiet, odd, awkward one in the group; these traits are linked directly to her autism.
- Ditto for her hobbies–she says they help her understand people.
- Every flashback sequence with Rory directly focuses on her autism.
- Almost every time we see Rory on page, particularly in the first half of the book, her autism is emphasized in some way or another. Instead of simply saying something, it’s mentioned how she says it “flatly” or has to think about it for a while. Instead of simply walking, her gait is described. The way she’s singled out as being unusual happens practically every time the character performs any action, to the point where I did a double-take the first time she’s mentioned as doing dishes without the narrative lingering on it.
- Rory’s development is all about how she manages to push beyond her boundaries. While I really liked these scenes, they again center around her autism.
Autism is absolutely a big part of most autistic people’s lives; I have no problem with it being woven into many different aspects of a character. Autism isn’t simply a quirky/tragic accessory that can be separated from someone’s “actual self.” That said, I did find it problematic that Rory seemingly did not have any history, interests, traits, or behaviors that could just be Rory instead of Autistic Rory™.
The character ends up very much defined by her autism, which is a shame; it wouldn’t have taken more than a few tweaks to round her out and make the autism simply a part of her character rather than dominating it.
Other parts that made me hesitant were the way she’s portrayed as “endearing” and the other characters hover over her in such a motherly way. This sometimes gives Rory a little-sister vibe rather than a classmate vibe.
However, that was still handled better than I would’ve expected. For one, it’s textually acknowledged: in a scene when they’re keeping an eye on her from a distance, one character asks, “Does she know she’s got the Secret Service here?”
For another, when Rory is struggling with sensory overload, a character simply asks her, “How can I help?” and asking this question is unequivocally portrayed as being the absolute best thing to do. When they brainstorm solutions that might help Rory through a difficult situation, she’s fully involved in this discussion. She has the final say in what happens, and people respect her agency instead of shoving her around.
In a world where autistic people are often seen as a Problem That Must Be Dealt With, that’s something I appreciated a lot.
A final point of criticism is that in this five-member group of teenagers, with disabled, queer, and non-white characters, it’s quite a shame that our narrator is the straight, white, abled girl of the group. I really enjoyed the book, and I dug Justine’s predicament—she was the break-out star of the first two documentaries and feels like she hasn’t lived up to that potential—but I found the other characters more interesting, and I can imagine flat-out loving the book if it had been from one of their perspectives. (Understandably, I’m particularly biased toward Rory being our protagonist.)
As is, though, I appreciated a lot about You Look Different in Real Life; it’s one of those novels that makes me want to read a lot more contemporary YA. While Rory’s portrayal isn’t flawless, it’s well researched, and a significant step in the right direction of treating autistic characters as regular teenagers and integral parts of the cast.