Review of ‘House Rules’ by Jodi Picoult

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In the 2 weeks or so since I read this, after a bit of cogitation on whether or not I liked it and whether I had anything to say about it, I’ve decided that yes, I did, and yes, I do.

The story centres around Jacob, a young man with Apsegrers/autism and an obsessive interest in crime scene investigation and forensics. When his support worker disappears and is later found dead, Jacob is accused. We don’t discover exactly what happened until near the end, so there’s an element of a murder mystery to this novel, but the reader can make a good guess at how things might have gone down. The strength of this novel is not in the murder mystery itself, but how the accusations against Jacob play out on a personal level to the characters.

Certainly the author is a good writer, I was impressed by her ability to tell the story through the first-person viewpoint of several characters. Emma was particularly nuanced, perhaps being closer to the author herself, but Jacob and Theo were well done, too.

It struck me that the author was brave to portray an autistic character in a first-person point of view. There are some with a “them and us” mentality, viewing Autism as a minority subculture, who would take offense at a neurotypical attempting to write an autistic voice. I say, good on her for giving it a shot. Autistic people are, first and foremost, people.

And this is, primarily, a novel about Aspergers/autism. The author has obviously done a huge amount of research and the novel is heavy in AS details (which I can forgive, as the condition is nothing if not complex), and this is the driver of the plot, too. In essence it revolves around the way an autistic person’s view of himself can drastically differ from how he is viewed by his family, by outsiders, and by the legal system. It’s about the difficulty of finding out the truth and obtaining justice when dealing with someone with a literal mind, communication difficulties, and a condition so many associate with a lack of empathy. In that sense, this is an important novel.

While I applaud the author for tackling this subject, there were aspects with which I was uncomfortable.

Firstly, I was not convinced about the way Jacob’s autism presented. Even knowing the wide variety of trait severity out there, and knowing that some with a sky-high IQ can still struggle significantly in daily life, the dichotomy between trait severity and IQ in Jacob seemed too extreme. There’s a reason why classic autism and Aspergers Syndrome were once separate diagnoses, and I believe that intellectual capacity generally does help to moderate behaviour. So while I agree with the author that a child diagnosed with classic autism might potentially become an adult with Aspergers Syndrome, in Jacob she seems to have mixed the two, presenting a young man of great intellect who retains an absolute rigidity over things like food colours, and still has the uncontrolled screaming kind of meltdown.

Since Jacob’s meltdowns and his intellectual abilities are both necessary parts of the plot, my doubts detracted from the realism of the story and induced an element of disbelief in the legal proceedings which might otherwise have felt more dramatic.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the way in which Emma tackles her son’s autism, by placing him on a gluten and casein free diet and feeding him some very expensive supplements. Multivitamins and fish oils I can understand, but he also gets liposome-enclosed glutathione, an oxytocin nasal spray and daily injections of vitamin B12.

This is certainly consistent with Emma’s character – the mother who will do whatever it takes to improve Jacob’s life and relieve the family of his worst behaviours. I get that. What I’m uncomfortable with is that the benefits of these treatments are presented in the novel unchallenged. She tells us that the nasal spray and the B12 shot help with his anxiety, and average reader (who hasn’t studied the scientific literature and does not know that there is in fact no scientific consensus that such treatments have any benefit whatsoever) is likely to take this as gospel truth.

On reflection, despite these niggles, I’ve decided that I like what the author is doing here, overall. And it was certainly a very readable story, keeping me entertained for a couple of days. Recommended.

 

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This is why…

Sorry, no images (it’s late and I can’t be bothered). But I hadn’t posted in a while and I wanted to keep up the blog.

First off, I just wanted to reassure those who were worried about my health (hi mum!): I’m still tapering off the antidepressant (down to ⅓ dose), but as far as I can tell, I’m all recovered from the anxiety/stress disorder. My nervous system has settled down and I’m not getting hyper for days or getting upset over small things like I was before, so I’m thinking my amygdala has reset back to normal, which is great !

This has freed up a bit of energy to start working with my son on some of his issues. I should have done this before, but better late than never. I won’t talk about this too much because I try not to infringe my kids’ privacy by writing about them on my blog. (The basics of it is that a perfectionism-anxiety thing related to his Aspergers has become a roadblock in the transition from school to adult life, and might take a bit of work to overcome. But better not go into that here).

So what else to write about, I was wondering? If I follow what’s been on my mind, I’m still working through a few Asperger-ish issues of my own (yes, I know you’re tired of this topic, but I can’t help it. Obsessive interests come with the territory).

So at the weekend I read “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult. This was essential reading really, on account of it being about a single mum with 18- and 15-year old kids, the elder of whom was on the spectrum. See? What choice did I have? I’m still mulling over what I thought of that book, and might come up with a review later once I’ve decided whether or not I liked it… please stand by…

Other than that, I thought I might try and give people a better explanation of where I’m at – and in particular, why I’m still a little hung up on the autism thing. Because it occurs to me that I’ve never really explained. Or not very well. So here it is…

The thing is (apart from it being my latest obsessive interest), Aspergers has been causing me trouble. It’s been causing me trouble for years, which was why I found out I had it, because I got to the point of desperately wanting to know just what the heck was wrong with me. It caused difficulties at work leading to a period of unemployment, and it seriously hampered my ability to be the mother to my kids that I felt they deserved. And now, even though I know the reason why, Aspergers is still causing me trouble because having a diagnosis doesn’t change the condition and it’s not like there’s a cure. So even after diagnosis, Aspergers has been a factor in the breakdown of my marriage, has led to me turning down lucrative job offers, and caused me to reduce my working hours at a job I love. To get where I want to be in life, I need to develop strategies to manage it effectively. It’s an on-going process.

I know this probably seems strange, because I really am right on the edge of the spectrum, and to meet me you might not notice anything too wrong. I’m just a little awkward sometimes, a little thoughtless on occasion. It looks like a minor personality thing. What you’re seeing, though, is the result of decades of coping mechanisms.

Did you know that autism actually changes one’s personality? Adjustment to an autistic brain creates particular personality traits – not exactly the same in everyone but with common features. And they change over time. Though I can only tell you how it’s worked in me…

Unlike classic autism which can be diagnosed at age 2 or 3, the Aspergers type is more commonly diagnosed at age 9 or 10. Essentially, this is because there’s no language delay (in fact aspies can have advanced vocabulary and reading ability), so it only gets noticed when social skill deficits become obvious.

Some of us manage to muddle along socially and don’t get diagnosed in childhood. For me, around the age of 9 or 10, I started working out a few things. Such as the idea that one is supposed to share things with friends. The discovery that people didn’t react well when I voiced my thoughts. I learnt to watch what others were doing and saying and copy them to fit in. At heart I’m an extrovert, you see – I enjoy the company of others and I want to have friends, I want to connect.

Probably around the same age, I also became an obsessive reader, getting lost in books for extended periods. This was the autism. It was a combination of the tendency to hyperfocus and the need to escape from a social world that was getting hard to handle. Books were also a safe way to experience and learn about emotions, acting as a primer in how to deal with them in an acceptable way. This is how autism superimposes introversion over an otherwise extroverted personality.

Another personality trait common to autistics is neuroticism. Unlike in neurotypical folk however, for whom neuroticism generally has a negative impact, in autistics neurotic traits correspond to better social functioning. I’m not making that up, there’s been a study on it. I think neuroticism is also something the autism pushes on us. We learn to go inside ourselves, to practice metacognition – much as I’m doing here – to explore why we think what we think and feel what we feel. It’s necessary to work out how to adapt and survive.

We tend to become conscientious workers, too. Some of the positive traits often quoted of those on the spectrum are reliability, loyalty and honesty. Although we can be cautious in assessing our abilities, if you can pin us down to saying we’ll do something then we’ll do it. (Well, as long as we don’t get focused on something else and forget).

I wasn’t always as conscientious as I am now, though. Again, it’s a coping mechanism I’ve learnt, because when you can’t connect with people, how else can you demonstrate your good intentions but by doing what they tell you? And when the correct responses to others’ emotional states is elusive, at least you can follow their explicit instructions. In contrast to our social lives, work becomes an important area in which we are capable of functioning at a decent standard.

So this is where I’m at. I’ve become a conscientious worker, somewhat neurotic, and am getting a reputation for being anti-social. It’s not that I want to be a recluse, but in a vicious circle, the more I drop out of society the more I forget how to be social. I’m nearly 50 and I’ve never learnt (or have forgotten) how to initiate or maintain a conversation. I’m not kidding. And the trouble is, inside, I’m still the extroverted kid who wants to have friends and to connect meaningfully with others.

This is the reason I struggle. It’s hard to break down an insularity developed over decades and allow myself to open up to people and show my true self. I even struggle to work out who my true self is. If I were to stop myself from aping others, pretending to be normal, who would I be? And if I’ve spent decades covering up my true self because of others’ reactions, dare I probe any deeper and reveal what’s underneath, or is it best left hidden? Should I accept the necessity of what I’ve done to myself, together with the cost in lost opportunities for connectedness and friendship?

I’m not finding it easy, to be honest, working through this. But whatever. It is what it is.

And that’s my explanation why.