Autism, Culture, and Representation

Although I was excited to be reading With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe, I found that it did not quite meet my expectations. To me, it felt like the book illustrated many of the stereotypical characteristics of autism. Hikaru did not like to be touched, had a tendency to throw tantrums, liked trains, etc. I was disappointed that other than seeing these characteristics, I was not able to get to know Hikaru more as a character. There was a much greater focus on his mother, Azuma, and her struggles as a parent. I understand that this book targets parents and addresses the challenges that they face in raising an autistic child, but I would have liked the autistic child to be more developed and involved in the story as a person.

 

While I found that the mother has been one of the most likeable parents with an autistic child that I have encountered, I still found one fault that I had trouble looking past. She struggles at first to accept and understand what autism is, just as many parents do. It is casually mentioned in passing that she sometimes hits Hikaru to calm him down from his tantrums. Although this hints at the controversy over the abuse of autistic children, it is an idea that is not developed further and instead remains lingering beneath the surface of the entire story. Later on she says something about how she used to hit him and now understands him, but none of the other characters are ever aware of the situation and it is never addressed.

My initial reaction was that this was a bit weird but that the author was just trying to show that Azuma was not a perfect mother and not a perfect person. After thinking about it more though, it really bothers me that she chose to make this point in this way. I think that it is absolutely unacceptable for this issue of child abuse to have been written about so casually and that she was never called out for it.  I understand that this probably happens more than I would like it to in the real world, but I feel like in a story like this, it would have been more meaningful to me as a reader if I could have watched Azuma transform and explicitly realize that her actions were wrong in a way that was given more attention. I just felt like this was an issue that was too serious to just brush beneath the illustrations.

That being said, I also feel that there are no right ways to accurately portray autism because it is so different in each individual. When it is described by common characteristics, I feel like it is reinforcing the stereotypical understanding of autism. When it is not portrayed with some of these characteristics, then I don’t always feel like it was accurate. When a main character with autism is a main focus of the story, I often question whether the person’s autism is being used to create the personality and the obstacles the character faces. And when the autistic character is not the center of attention, I wonder why the character was not further developed and why the character’s personality was overlooked.

So I can see how this would be a useful to text for a parent to read. Azuma is relatively admirable, and the way she faces challenges can be inspiring to parents. But at the same time, I am hesitant about how people portray autism after only reading this book.

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