Many autistic portrayals—whether in fiction or news media—are problematic because they sideline autistic people, who become important only in how they affect others. That means that reviewing the portrayal of autism in books like New York Times bestselling YA romance Isla and the Happily Ever After, in which the titular character’s best friend Kurt is autistic, can be complicated.
By their very nature, secondary characters are, well, secondary. They appear when they plot calls for it and are in large part defined by their relationship with the protagonist. In Isla, this is very much the case for Kurt. I was excited whenever he appeared because I looked forward to further exploring his character or his tight, lifelong friendship with Isla, but was disappointed nearly every time—despite knowing that that’s to be expected when reading specifically for a secondary character. Kurt’s sections are brief, and while he regularly pops up in Isla’s thoughts, she’s more consumed with her budding relationship with Josh.
In the past, another friend of Isla’s didn’t get along with Kurt and forced Isla to choose between them; a similar situation happened when Isla dumped a boyfriend for treating Kurt badly. While I love how much she clearly cared for him, backstory like that risks depicting Isla as saintly for sticking with Kurt despite his eccentricities. Similarly, her new boyfriend Josh accepting and getting along with Kurt paints him in an immediately positive light—Isla nearly swoons with relief.
I was left with the nagging feeling that Kurt largely existed as a complicating factor in Isla’s relationship(s) and to make her and Josh more appealing in readers’ eyes.
Which brings me back to my opening point: this is a common trend in portrayals of autistic characters, but can also be the nature of the beast when it comes to secondary characters. As Isla is a romance, it’s logical for the relationship between Isla and Josh to take center stage—and it’s actually addressed in-text, with Isla ditching Kurt in favor of Josh being called out numerous times. Still, I wanted to mention it, so that those picking up the book for autistic representation know not to expect more (in-depth) Kurt than the book actually delivers.
With that giant disclaimer out of the way, let me state this: whoa.
Given the not-Kurt-focus of the book, I was surprised by how many pitfalls regarding autistic representation Perkins avoided in a wonderfully understated manner. Various assumptions and tropes were casually turned over with a single line here or there, to the point where the book may actually get more right than other books that focus on autism.
There are so many details I’d like to comment on—most of them positive, but not all—that it’s easier to organize them by topic. Some minor spoilers ahead.
On Kurt and his relationships with Isla and others:
- Despite it sometimes feeling as if it was done for sympathy points, it’s great seeing Isla being so firmly in Kurt’s corner. Better yet, it’s not framed as, “I sacrifice so much for Kurt,” but as, “Damn, people treat Kurt badly.”
- Isla isn’t always perfect in this aspect, either. There are instances where she’s not as gracious with Kurt, but this is often instantly called out.
… I’m embarrassed about Kurt. He’s so rigid. And awkward. But the shame that follows these traitorous thoughts is instantaneous. … As if I’m any less awkward.
We’re all annoyed with our friends sometimes, whether they’re autistic or not. I’m extra-sensitive to these kinds of thoughts because they’re so common and accepted—even expected—but within the context of the book, they’re realistic and were addressed well.
- There’s laughter. There’s friendly banter. Kurt brings Isla breakfast.
“I’m so far from sucking that you can’t even handle it.”
When he’s unsure if a joke of Josh’s is serious, he asks Isla about it, and rather than lingering on his misinterpretation, he comes back with a totally awful, wonderful pun. In short, Kurt is completely believable as an actual friend to Isla, and not just someone she takes under her wing or hangs out with because she feels obligated to.
- Throughout the book (and past few years), Kurt and Isla have no friends except for each other. Kurt presumably because of his social awkwardness, and Isla presumably because of her shyness and Kurt’s presence. But near the end, when Isla is preoccupied with Josh, Kurt reaches out and makes other friends fairly easily. Throughout the novel, it was implied he’s held Isla back, but she acknowledges that wasn’t the case at all.
- One part I disliked was that, early on, a bully harasses Kurt and calls him the R-word. The use of such a harmful, ableist slur felt gratuitously out of place in such an otherwise light, friendly novel.
Kurt stands up for himself—a surprisingly rare trait for an autistic character:
- He’s rightfully hurt by Isla consistently brushing him off in favor of Josh and calls her out on it. For example:
“Listen. I don’t want to tag along on your dates, and I don’t want you to stop going out, but it’d be nice to know if you still gave a shit about me.”
- He also calls her out when she’s being condescending:
“You’re the one person who’s never supposed to talk to me like that. Like I don’t understand. You’ve wanted to screw him for three years. Why wouldn’t you now that you’re dating? I’m not the idiot that you think I am.”
I’m stung. “I don’t think that. You know I don’t think that.”
There’s truth to what he’s saying. It shames me.
- When Isla freaks out about mixed messages from Josh, Kurt simply says, “Stop shouting.” Then he proceeds to theorize about what it means—
“Is it possible that he broke up with you, and you didn’t realize it? People are confusing. They say one thing and mean the other.”
—and gives actual insightful, reasonable advice. I love that this happens in the same scene, acknowledging that social interactions are often difficult for autistic people, but that it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of understanding. In fact, because of the conscious way we have to learn social interaction, some autistic people have an extra solid grasp of people’s motivations and actions.
On the topic of Kurt’s sexuality:
Kurt launches into something about a freshman in his computer programming class, a girl who is tall and serene and already fluent in several internet languages—totally his type.
I almost squeed at that line. Often, autistic characters are stripped of sexuality—not in a sense of being asexual (which would be wonderful if it were treated as an actual, legitimate identity, rather than a “side effect” of their autism) but in a sense of it not even being an option. Or, when the character does have sexual or romantic urges, it’s turned into some kind of strange, surprising thing. Not the case here. It’s treated completely casually.
- Kurt regularly spending the night in Isla’s room could’ve been similarly fraught—him not being seen as a potentially sexual being—but it’s clear that they see each other as siblings due to having grown up together, not for any other reason.
- Josh remains wary/jealous of Kurts and Isla’s closeness, rather than dismissing Kurt as a potential romantic rival.
- Kurt is mentioned as having morning wood. I wish such a small thing weren’t noteworthy, but it’s just another detail cementing him as, yes, just a regular teen boy with common teen boy functions.
At one point, Josh asks Isla about Kurt and his autism. Isla says a few interesting things in this conversation:
“What the DSM used to call Asperger’s, and what they now call high-functioning autism. It’s the same thing.”
This strikes me as both a plus and a minus. Many people still identify as having Asperger’s, and I’m not sure if saying “it’s the same thing” might invalidate that identity. Personally, as someone originally diagnosed with Asperger’s, I appreciated this line. I’ve regularly seen people with Asperger’s loudly distancing themselves from other autistic people, or people considering Asperger’s as “autism-lite” or as “related to” autism but not actually autism. Many books reinforce that distinction, so I was really glad to see a book that didn’t.
I did twitch at the mention of “high-functioning autism.” The context is fairly neutral (for example, it’s not used to compare to/put down “low-functioning” people) but it’s a highly contested and unpopular term within the disabled community.
“But it’s not a problem, it’s not like it’s something that needs to be cured. His brain works a little differently from ours. That’s all.”
It’s surprisingly refreshing to see this so bluntly stated. This line may be many people’s first exposure to this idea, and I love Isla for introducing them to it.
“It’s not like he’s a card-counting savant or a mathematical genius or anything. I mean, don’t get me wrong. He’s brilliant. But those stereotypes are the worst.”
Again: sometimes, that directness is necessary.
- Isla notes that Kurt’s bluntness can hurt people’s feelings, but that he doesn’t mean to and is devastated when he finds out. This is something people so often overlook—yes, we do care when we hurt people!—and I’m so grateful for that acknowledgment.
- Isla thinks:
Kurt and I meet after his weekly therapy session, but Josh doesn’t need to know that.
I’m glad that she respected his privacy enough to keep that part silent.
- Despite all these positives, I felt slightly mixed about them having the conversation in the first place. On one hand, I appreciate Josh being sincerely interested and listening without judging, and it makes sense to ask Isla rather than Kurt himself, as he knows Isla much better and is more comfortable with her. At the same time, it fit the pattern of Kurt being sidelined in the narrative (left out of a scene about him) and used to serve the relationship—as this conversation is used as a springboard for exactly that.
I also enjoyed various details that I found completely believable:
- Kurt not being good at filling in the blanks in conversations, but simply asking Isla for clarification rather than being awkward about it or engaging in supposedly comical misinterpretations.
- Kurt trying to show Isla something at a student assembly and being annoyed when she’s distracted by, well, the student assembly. This attitude of, “I am interested in this thing, why aren’t you, even though there’s something much more important going on,” isn’t flattering, but it’s familiar. I’m guilty of it for certain.
- Kurt’s special interest is cartography (including finding the Right Way to locations), and he picks up an obsession with the Catacombs of Paris. After reading several novels where the autistic character’s default interest is math/science/trains, this is so refreshing.
- Kurt sticking to the rules. Again, a pretty familiar trait. He does become more open to breaking rules later on, but it’s not portrayed as some “oh, he’s beating his autism” thing. In fact, his character development is directly juxtaposed with Josh’s, which really helps to frame this in a non-icky way.
Aside from Kurt, there is other casual diversity scattered around the novel— Josh’s ex-girlfriend, Isla’s ex-friend, and Kurt’s new friend are three siblings from an Indian family, and Isla’s older sister is bisexual. (In the same line where this sister is mentioned as suddenly shaving her head and getting a girlfriend, she’s mentioned as coming out as bi. It would have been so easy to default to calling her a lesbian—most other authors would have! I loved this.)
In short: this isn’t the best book to pick up specifically for its autistic or otherwise diverse representation. The diversity is all secondary, with the focus very firmly on two straight, white, extremely privileged, largely abled (Josh has tendinitis) teenagers and their romance.
However, it is a book that does so many surprising things right—ranging from a fresh, matter-of-fact depiction of autism to subtle yet efficient subversions of assumptions—that I’m delighted every time I think of Kurt’s character. I definitely recommend picking up Isla for anyone wanting to study that element.
Now, if only we could get a Kurt-and-tall-serene-girl-centric companion novel …