Autism: Fiction and Fact

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X Stork. Scholastic, 2009, 312 pages. Age/interest level: 14-up.

Dancing With Max, by Emily Colson. Zondervan, 2010, 200 pages. Age/interest level: 18-up.

How do I describe it? It is like listening to very loud music with headphones. Only the music seems to be coming from inside the brain. It is actually a very neat sensation. “It is just here,” I say to Dr. Malone. Then an image comes to my mind. “It is a big watermelon . . . When the internal music is there, Marcelo is one of the seeds. The music is the watermelon.”

Marcello Sandoval is a small, self-contained seed, happy in his own small world. But his father, a highly successful lawyer, doesn’t think so: “The real world as a whole has its rules. The rules deal with behaviors and the way to do things in order to be successful.” Therefore, instead of spending the summer working with small horses and developmentally challenged children, as he wants to do, Marcelo will work in the mail room of the law firm. Father knows best: at summer’s end, if Marcelo has performed his work to a level that both define as “success,” he can finish his senior year at the school of his choice: the alternative school where he feels comfortable or the public high school his father prefers.

Marcelo has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the Autism Spectrum he accepts and knows how to explain. But he can’t easily find his way around the physical world, gets confused when given more than one direction at a time, and has trouble sifting literal from figurative. He also has a consuming interest in religion, especially the Bible, which he will talk about with a complete lack of self-consciousness. His one rule is, “Don’t do anything that will hurt others.” As an observer more than a participant in his own life, he habitually refers to himself in the third person. But even he understands it’s time for a change.

The law firm is full of real-world types: icy secretaries, earthy receptionists, legal sharks—and Jasmine, the mail room clerk, who’s harder to classify. If this were a typical YA novel or Movie of the Week, Jasmine would be quirky, profane, funny, and wounded. After an edgy period of confrontation, Marcelo would begin to understand how much they have in common. Through Jasmine he would come to see the world in a new way and became the guardian of her secret hurt and (very likely) end up in the sack with her, which would broaden his horizons even more.

But fortunately, it doesn’t turn out that way. The lawyers are predictably jerks, and soon we learn that the firm of Sandoval & Holmes is defending a client who should be out of business for manufacturing a defective product. Marcelo’s simple code of Don’t do anything that will hurt others doesn’t seem to apply when the right thing to do will hurt someone, namely his father, who for all his faults loves him and wants the best for him. Mining this dilemma uncovers the self-righteousness in Marcelo’s own soul—and Jasmine can’t be reduced to a seven-word code either. Welcome to the Real World.

Marcelo acquires a spirit-guide, a female rabbi (though his family is Catholic) who can hear him out and point him in the right direction. That direction is not dogmatic, for no religious path is given priority (even though the Bible remains the text of choice). “Our longing is for Him, the big longing, the one with a capital L, sometimes gets confused with a hundred little longings, some of them okay, some of them not. For most of us the longing lies buried under a mountain of silliness and selfishness.” Everybody wants to do right, she suggests, but along the way holy urges are diverted to the unholy.

This moral dichotomy is personified in the girl who has become the focus of Marcelo’s dilemma. Her face has been ruined in an auto accident (due to the defective product) and stands as a metaphor for her own dilemma: “After a while, the nice part and the ugly part stopped hating each other. There was a peace inside me, like the different parts disappeared and there was only me.”

The implication is that making peace between the parts will invariably, or at least usually, resolve in favor of the good—what Rabbi Heschel defines as doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). The possibility that “peace” might come at the expense of the good is not explored–as another prophet says, “There is none righteous, no, not one . . .” (Ps. 14:1-3)

The questions as they are posed don’t have easy answers. To the author’s credit, they will not flatter a young reader into thinking he or she has figured it out. There’s plenty here to think about, and all of it worth pondering.

Asperger’s is more than a literary gimmick, of course, but it’s typical in novels of this type to present the afflicted character as a sensitive young soul whose debilitating condition actually gives him a platform for judging the hypocrisy and shallowness of modern society. Marcelo in the Real World, as I’ve indicated, avoids some of those obvious pitfalls, but real reality is always more complicated than any novel, with its necessary artistic focus, can show. Parents who are struggling with autism in their own home, or adults who know someone who is, can gain insight from the real-life experience of others in the same situation. Christian parents should definitely check into Emily Colson’s Dancing With Max. Max’s autism was more than a challenge: it broke up Emily’s marriage and put her into an emotional and spiritual tailspin.  She had to start over from scratch, not only with her son, but with her father (both earthly and heavenly). Death and disability and other setbacks that interrupt our plans have a way of forcing us to re-evaluate, re-focus, and—most importantly—recommit ourselves into our Father’s hands. Her story is not just for parents dealing with autism, but for anyone faced with a situation that seems to be sending them back to Square One.


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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Sherry on October 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    I read Marcelo and liked it a lot. I wrote about it here:

    Thanks for reminding me about Emily Colson’s book; I had intended to read it but had let it slip off my mental list.

    • Janie Cheaney on October 10, 2011 at 9:03 am

      Thanks, Sherry. Marcello was definitely the best of the Prinz book nominees a couple of years ago; it should have won. I forget which book won.

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