Can Fiction Accurately Portray Asperger’s and Autism?

Mia J. Salaz
Blog Post

Rain Reign is a much lauded recent book by noted children’s author Ann M. Martin. It tells the story of Rose, a young girl with what is described as “high functioning autism.”

The book has been praised by critics and earned piles of awards. But here at AANE we wanted to know if Rain Reign rang true to a young person who has Asperger’s (AS), so we turned to blog contributor, Mia J. Salaz. Here’s what she had to say:

“I read this book a couple weeks ago called Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. Martin was one of my favorite writers as a little kid. I loved A Corner of the Universe, Here Today, the Main Street books, and the Babysitters Club series. I was excited for this book because I haven’t read any of Martin’s work since I was in 6th grade, and I wanted to see if her portrayal of a girl on the spectrum was spot-on or completely and totally offensive.

I finished the book in 2 days. The writing itself was amazing, and if I didn’t have standardized exams the next morning, I would have stayed up all night reading it.

I was asked several questions about the book, which I will now answer.”

Did you, as a young woman with a diagnosis of AS who also knows a lot of people on the spectrum, think that Ann M. Martin’s portrayal of Rose was accurate?

I don’t think there’s one right way to portray a character on the spectrum. Sometimes, when people meet me, they say things like, “I had no idea you were on the spectrum! You’re such a poised young lady!” The notion that everyone on the spectrum is the same is totally and completely wrong. If you’ve met one person on the spectrum, CONGRATULATIONS! YOU JUST WON THE LOTTERY! and you’ve only met one of the millions of people on the spectrum. People on the spectrum are as diverse as the human race itself; there’s no one right or wrong way to portray people on the spectrum.

Martin probably wanted the reader to understand that Rose had AS, and so, because the target reading audience was 9-12 year olds, she had to make Rose’s diagnosis painfully obvious. Most 9-12 year olds don’t really understand the subtleties and nuances in a piece of text. Martin might have assumed that her audience wouldn’t understand the fact that Rose had a disability unless she literally used every autism stereotype in the book. I’m giving her a pass on that because of her intended audience.

That being said, if Rain Reign was a young adult novel, Martin could have afforded to make Rose’s diagnosis more subtle because most readers ages 13 and up have figured out how to interpret things in a text that are not spoon-fed to them. Rose could have just been shy and chosen not to make friends, and that would be enough context for a teen reader to realize that Rose was somehow different from her peers. Obviously not every teen knows about the diagnosis of Asperger’s, so Martin would have had to explain that Rose had Asperger’s regardless of whether she was writing a board book for 2 year olds or a 500-page adult novel.

Do you think the author did good research?

Ann M. Martin was smart and did the best kind of research that one who is curious about the spectrum can do: she went to a school for children on the spectrum and observed the kids there. It was wise of her to observe multiple children on the spectrum because like I said, no two people on the spectrum are exactly alike, and autism and Asperger’s affect different people in different ways. By observing a classroom full of children on the spectrum, Martin was able to gain multiple perspectives on how different people experience autism and Asperger’s.

Does she show that she understands what it is like to have Asperger’s?

Martin did a beautiful job portraying the strict, linear way in which people with Asperger’s tend to think. Rose was a character that thought in patterns and routines, which is a classic characteristic of Asperger’s. Because so many of us Aspies experience anxiety, it calms us down to think in routines and patterns. I get so stressed and anxious when something unexpected happens or I don’t know what is going to happen next, and clearly, so does Rose. The basic premise of the book was that her rituals and routines get interrupted when her dog, Rain, gets lost in a superstorm. The anxiety and disruption that occurred when Rose lost Rain was almost identical to how I would react in a similar situation.

Would you recommend that book to someone who wanted to learn more about what it is like to have Asperger’s?

Having Asperger’s is not a single experience. Every individual Aspie experiences Asperger’s differently, and therefore, there is no one description or set of characteristics that define what it’s like to have Asperger’s. I would say that if one wanted to understand the general thought process of someone with Asperger’s, then definitely read this book. Martin does a great job of transporting the reader into Rose’s mind and her very detailed, specific thought process.