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Kathryn Erskine’s protagonist, Caitlin, describes a variety of qualities which could place her on the autistic spectrum:  Caitlin is sensitive to smell, will only wear clothes consisting of certain materials and colors, has trouble deciphering the intricacies of speech , requires the tracking of her progress with social skills such as MANNERS and interpreting facial expressions, is able to memorize most things very well, and she is a gifted artist. Erskine includes an excess of traits, perhaps, in order to make the point that Caitlin has Asperger’s, and to illustrate exactly what the disorder entails. The author’s exaggeration of the number of traits one individual with the disorder would most likely possess is successful if intended indicate several ways a person with Asperger’s is different . Still the result is an often times inaccurate magnification of traits exhibited by a person on Autism Spectrum.  By placing every single trait under a microscope  for dissection, the author runs the risk of reader misperception that all people or children with Asperger’s think and act similarly. Still, Erskine does an impeccable job not making the story about Caitlin’s differences by creating a constantly changing and ripening plot, in which Caitlin’s Asperger’s is only a part.

Caitlin Smith is very dependent on her school counselor Mrs. Brook; she sees her every day for lessons in socials skills, behavior regulation, and perhaps most importantly, she is a mediator between Caitlin and her Dad.  The family lost the most special person in their lives to a school shooting, Caitlin’s older brother Devon.  To make matters even worse, Caitlin’s mother died of cancer two years before.  So, when Caitlin asks Mrs. Brook where exactly she can find closure, as if she can pick it up somewhere, her counselor knows what the young girl does not, that Caitlin must first be able to distinguish the tangible from the intangible in order to grasp the concept and process her brother’s passing.  But, once Caitlin decides she needs to find closure, due to repetitive instincts which are driven by stressors triggered by her disorder, she cannot stop thinking about the word and what it means to her.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Brook attempts to teach Caitlin how to empathize with others and explain to her how her father feels about the loss of Devon. Caitlin’s dad has shut her out of his life, because she is not able to express her emotions in the same ways he does, or understand how a neurotypical person grieves after such a terrible loss.  Now that Caitlin has lost  most of her family and her father is having difficulty with his own emotions and raising Caitlin, she relies on Mrs. Brook to show her how her father wants her to act. Since Devon was so accepting of Caitlin and helped her deal with the loss of their mother, Caitlin’s way of handling his death is to pretend he is still around. Her dad is not comfortable with this approach, but when Caitlin attempts to modify her behavior by referring to her brother as “Devon-who -is dead,” to suit him, he becomes more saddened and angry with her. Caitlin doesn’t mean to be offensive or hurtful, in fact she is changing her behavior, to try and help her father.  But, she can’t stop focusing on how she can find closure for her family.

Ever since Devon died, his Eagle Scout chest has been sitting unfinished in his bedroom with a sheet covering it. Caitlin’s dad doesn’t want to talk or hear about Devon. But, because Caitlin has Asperger’s and her needs entail never giving up on a subject she is passionate about, her dad is forced to get past the pain, which otherwise might have taken him years to overcome and finish work with Caitlin on Devon’s chest with Caitlin.  It is clear that Caitlin and her dad are able to work their way through a dark time in their lives, partially due to Caitlin’s distinctiveness, which leads her to focus on closure above all else when others might have waited and grieved a long time before taking action.

Caitlin spends a large majority of her young life working with adults to develop abilities which will help her function according to standards considered normal or neurotypical in society.  As her character develops, she is viewed less in regards to how well she is able to adjust her behaviors in accordance to the way those around her think and act.  There comes a point when one wonders if she will begin to lose part of her originality and sense-of-self in the midst of it all.  But, by the end of the story, Caitlin’s problems are merely a portion of the larger picture, showing the reader that a person with her disorder does not have to let it control his or her existence.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

DSM-IV (diagnostic critiera) for Asperger’s

Publisher’s Weekly Interview with Erskine

National Book Foundation, 2010 National Book Award Speech

More reading:

For Young Adults:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time by Mark Haddon

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Mindblind by Jennifer Roy

For Adults:

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison

Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports From My Life With Autism by Temple Grandin and Film(2010)

Resources:

Temple Grandin Autism Official Website

Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence: Helping Preteens and Teens Get Ready for the Real World by Teresa Bolick

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