Category Archives: Weekly Summaries

Week 13 Review

intothelightThese reviews are getting shorter (and later) as the end draws near.  But if you missed class on Monday evening, you missed a good discussion of With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe, the first volume of an eight-volume work.  We spent the first part of class examining different kinds of manga–shonen (for adolescent boys), shojo (for girls), josei (for women) and historical (e.g. Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon History of Hiroshima by Keijo Nakazawa).  We noted quite a few features of each genre, which included:

  • Strong, contrasting ink in many shonen manga, a contrast to the soft mid-tones of the josei With the Light.
  • Thick lines and sharp angles in shonen manga, a contrast to the thin, curving lines of WTL
  • A more regular, symmetrical pattern of panels in shonen, a contrast to the open (and hence timeless) panels of WTL.  
  • The predominance of action and action-to-action transitions in shonen, a contrast to the focus on relationships (and occasional aspect-to-aspect transitions) in WTL.
  • A “breaking of the fourth wall” of fiction in josei, as it appeals directly to mothers of autistic children through informational pages and resources.
  • See the Manga overview handout for more.

As we noticed these differences, one argument that emerged had to do with genre and audience: each of the manga genres speaks directly to a particular demographic.  It also reinforces sometimes traditional expectations about each demographic–that boys are supposed to like violence and conflict; that women are supposed to stay at home to raise children.  In this regard, WTL might be considered ahead of its time: not only does it portray a career woman (Sachiko) and her progressive husband (Masato), it also takes on the socially taboo topic of mental disorder/illness, a highly stigmatized issue in Japanese culture.

After the break, we talked more specifically about WTL, examining individual pages from the tome (these were hard to find without page numbers!).  A few consensus points emerged in our discussion:

  • WTL was one of the most emotionally powerful work of the semester.  Why was this the case?  Does a visual medium speak more immediately to us than a verbal one?
  • WTL seemed more direct and honest in its portrayal of autism than any other work this semester.
  • On occasion, WTL gives us insights into Hiraku’s world, and it is especially effective in showing the sensory overload he experienced.  Comics as a whole have the ability to show the sense of sight, smell, sound, and touch in a visual way, and this is an advantage over a strictly verbal form.
  • WTL also exemplifies how manga can appeal to autistic readers in a range of ways–by showing strong emotions, by giving readers face after face after face, by including highly detailed backgrounds and patterns, and more (see my article on this issue in particular).

Onward to Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither.  We’ll also spend time prepping for the final take-home essay.


Thaxton Analysis 10, Blog 7

This manga by Keiko Tobe is incredible and I’ve read lots of manga. I almost just want to shove this tome onto others when they don’t understand autism, because this depiction of it seems to be the least problematic that we’ve seen so far. It illustrates Sachiko, Masato, and Hikaru’s (and later Kanon) plight with coming to terms with disability, finding resources, and finding reprieve and help in others. Hikaru’s autism is intrinsically at the heart of the story, as much of the conflict in the manga itself rises from it. Whether it be coping with Hikaru’s outbursts, Sachiko’s attempts to find a haven for him, or other characters who oppress them, the family definitely has their hands full in raising a child with autism.

As I said, I really, really enjoyed reading this manga.  I think it stays true to “manga culture” and seeing a depiction of autism in that culture, for me, has not been an experience until now. Hikaru may not say much at all in this story, but his presence on the page is noteworthy. He takes a lot of dominance on the page when he’s in the scene or even being talked about. In the same vein, I feel like the story is less about Hikaru and more about Sachiko. If I had to say, I’d pin her as the protagonist (obviously, right?). Sachiko is definitely trying to beat the system that seems to be built against mothers like her with autistic children. All throughout the story, she goes to welfare facilities, daycares, has to interview for elementary schools in hopes they’ll accept her child—and often, she’s met with a lot of grief. The mothers with “normal” children don’t like how disruptive and “off” Hikaru is, and therefore puts Sachiko further away from them. Sachiko finds relief finally when she’s around others who understands her predicament, which, slowly but surely, includes her husband.

I felt like this manga not only played with the presentation of neurodivergence and autism, but also in traditional family values and the sort. Masato is the salaryman, Sachiko the stay at home mom. Eventually, the two compromise and Sachiko picks up a job and Masato climbs down the business ladder. I feel like these traditional values get flipped a bit when they both come to terms that their family isn’t “normal”. It seems to reflect the change and the adjustment that Sachiko and Masato have to do in order to help preserve their child. Just a tiny thing I noticed, but seems to be a big deal especially when dealing with this older Japanese culture.

The part that surprised me the most was near the end when Sachiko has her daughter. Sachiko can’t remember the first time that Kanon called her “mommy” when the word was a milestone for Hikaru. “I’m sorry I can’t be as happy as I was with Hikaru.” she ruminates. This was an interesting section that I feel showed a lot about Sachiko’s character. Here is a woman who is used to having to go the long way around, the higher road, the bumpier road, the hardest path yet taken—and yet when faced with a child who acts neurotypical, she almost can’t be thankful. Nothing with Kanon is hard (at least not yet, I feel). She doesn’t have to “try” to “earn her love”. It makes me wonder how the story would go if she had Kanon first—female, neurotypical—and then Hikaru later on in the manga. It would make for a very different story, no less, but what level of tenacity does Sachiko acquire from a neurodivergent child that she doesn’t seem to achieve with a neurotypical? (If I’m saying this right at all).


Week 12 Review

Last night, we met for the majority of class in our literature circles.  Collectively, our groups read Delightfully Different by D.S. Walker, Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern, The Half-Life of Planets by Emily Franklin and Brendan Haplin, Gone by Michael Grant, Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, and Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stenz.  I asked each group member to answer two questions: 1) what did your group discuss (and what was the best insight) and 2) what did you contribute to the discussion?

I read through your responses to the “best insight” portion of the first question and wanted to post some of them here:

On Colin Fischer: “We felt like we were reading the same book [as Curious Incident] with a slightly different plot and different character names.  I think the insight is that some new roles for those with ASD are needed.”  –Tanner

On Gone: “The best insight that I gained from this book is restored faith that an ASD character can be written without his condition simply being a gimmick.  Pete is a character that is well fleshed out and operates very realistically for a four-year-old autistic boy.” –Dan

On The Half-Life of Planets: ” This novel revealed something about people with ASD; they can still be sexual beings, like many other protagonists in other young adult novels.”–Haley

On Eye Contact: “The excessive amount of neurodivergent characters makes the story seem like a fan fiction written by a social justice warrior.  Where everyone is deviant form the norm and no one is typical.”–Diana

On Delightfully Different: “While this novel would be a great resource for those with friends and relatives on the autism spectrum, it is less appealing to the members of the general public.”

On Mockingbird: “It is hard for us, and those with ASD, to take on other perspectives, but when effort is put forth to do so form both sides, communication brings great understanding.”

After the break, we watched and discussed the documentary Manga World in anticipation of reading With the LIght by Keiko Tobe.  If you missed class, the film is available through the Films on Demands streaming database, which GVSU subscribes to.  See you soon.


Week 11 Review

Last night, we tackled the “Rainman” of autism-themed fiction: Mark Haddon’s 2004 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This wildly popular work has sold over 2 million copies, and it is largely credited with being the first novel to feature a first-person autistic narrator. As we alluded to last night, the book has also generated a spate of imitators, particularly in the young adult genre, but also evident in adult fiction.  Whatever the issues of the novel, it is undeniable that it presented autism to countless readers for the very first time.

To get into the novel, we took Simon Baron-Cohen’s online Eyes Test, which Baron-Cohen used as a measure of empathy.  We talked about the difficulty of the test, which asks participants to identify the emotion expressed by images of human eyes, and noted that while none of us obtained a perfect score, we are all quite accomplished at reading emotional expression.  Christopher, the autistic narrator, cannot read facial expressions very well, and this places some restraints on him as a narrator–we expect neurotypical narrators to observe the subtle changing expressions of their subjects.  Christopher is also incapable of lying or of detecting lies, and this led many of us to find him to be a more reliable narrator than, say, the Chief from Cuckoo’s Nest.

An interesting subtheme arose during our discussion of Christopher as narrator: the moral failures of the parents and nearly all of the adults in the novel.  We wondered if Christopher was the moral compass of the novel, or whether he could fulfill this role, given that even his altruistic actions (e.g. saving Toby) seem to be automated.  We wondered if the parents should  blamed for their adultery and divorce, or whether they were coping with the high pressure of raising an autistic child to the best of their abilities.

After the break, we talked about how literature circles should work, and then we got into our circles for approximately 45 minutes.  I asked each group to come up with one big idea that we needed to discuss.  My memory fails me a little, but here are the ones we addressed:

  • The ending, and more specifically, the gift of the puppy to Christopher.  Was this a kind gesture by the father or an attempt to buy Christopher’s affections?  Was it cloying or genuinely moving?  How can we tell the difference?
  • The overall impact of the book: even if the portrayal of autism may not be perfect, does the book perform a social good by raising awareness of autism?
  • More on Chrisopher and his narrative style: do the flatness of his observations (and the equal emphasis on the important and unimportant) accurately represent an autistic perspective?  Is there any way for a non-autistic author such as Haddon to represent an autistic mindset?  Does a narrator need to possess the capacity for self-relfection? Is third person the solution?
  • What would Christopher and Jack from “Telephone Man” have to say to each other?
  • More on Christopher: is he the real mystery to be solved, and if so, is this a problem?  Is he an issue (autism) in search of a story?  Is there enough emotional depth to Christopher, or do we have to redefine what we consider emotional depth?

Good questions, all.  We ended by looking at a YouTube video about the possible autism of Barron Trump, critiquing its negative portrayal of autism  I’m off to the NCTE conference, where I’ll be presenting on my recent autism research, but I’ll see you next week.  Remember to bring your literature circle book.  Until then.

Week 10 Review

Time is flying.  Week 10 is in the books.  Time is also a major concern of Philip K. Dick’s 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, the earliest work of fiction to include an explicitly autistic character.  So, we started a strange but related place: with science, not science fiction.  Working in small groups, we read a 2009 study (published in JADD) on the way autistic individuals perceive time.  The study concluded that adults with ASD have a slightly more difficult time reproducing lengths of time accurately.  I thought this was a pretty interesting connection to the characters of Manfred Steiner, the autistic boy, and Jack Bohlen, the schizophrenic repairman.  Here are a few connections we saw:

  • We noted that while the neurocognitive research on temporal perception and ASD has happened in the last ten years, Dick created an autistic character with time-bending abilities way back in 1964.
  • This led us to speculate whether Philip K. Dick himself was schizophrenic, given his use of a schizophrenic perspective (Jack Bohlen).  To understate things, his was certainly an unstable and short life, though he managed to write absolutely prolifically nonetheless.
  • We also noted how the narrative reflects a distortion of temporal perspective, as Jack and Manfred loop four times through the “evening at Arnie’s” sequence.
  •  We wondered if this post-modern, non-linear approach to narrative was more reflective of a neurodiverse mindset than the linear approach in Cuckoo’s Nest.  It forces the NT reader into a ND space, as Skye put it.

After the break, we watched a short clip from Blade Runner, the most famous of the films based on Dick’s novels and short stories.   Many of Dick’s novels are concerned with simulacra
(machines that replicate humans), so this was a good place to start.  Some even think that the replicants in the film represent autistic individuals (see this Wrong Planet discussion).  We talked at length about the teaching machines in the public school, noting that they likely stand for the factory model of education, where students are trained to conform rather than to think individually.  This is what Jack believes, and we can see Dick again as fairly prophetic here, given the way teachers are increasingly automated in our day and age.  There is also something fundamentally creepy about simulacra–they invoke in us a kind of existential horror.

We expanded our discussion of autism/schizophrenia, observing that many of the characters repeat psychoanalytical theories that were popular during Dick’s time.  So, are these characters mouthpieces for what Dick himself believes about autism?  Probably not:  none of the characters in the book really understand what autism is–it transcends their understanding, as Dan put it.  The possible exception is the Bleekmen, who seem to have a mystical connection to Manfred and a similar ability to see through time.  Is this a stereotypical treatment of an aboriginal culture?  Maybe–but as Skye pointed out, at least the Bleekmen (especially Helio) treat Manfred with respect.

We talked briefly about the mental institution, Camp B-G, again recognizing the thin line between those who belong in society and those who do not.  This led us to consider the history of Israel and the Zionist themes in the novel: is Camp B-G a kind of Jewish ghetto?  John asked. Interesting speculation, especially given that the residents in the camp are destined for extermination.

This the power that science fiction–a lowly “genre” fiction–has to raise ideas.  In depicting the intertwining lives of several neurodiverse characters, it has a freedom that more “realistic’ fiction does not have.  See you next time.



Thaxton Analysis 8, Blog 5

If you are looking for meaning in this story, mental dysfunction is the place to start.” says John Lents on his blog devoted to Phillip K Dick’s work.

After reading Martian Time-Slip, I, of course, had to research more about the book itself. It lead me to Lents’ blog which analyzes both the schizophrenic and autistic mind as it is depicting in PKD’s book. In my own reading of Time-Slip, I became unnerved when I realized that children like Manfred, the autistic character of the story, are being “euthanized” in a way to procure a more stable population on Mars. Perhaps a “better” population. Perhaps trying to induce “natural selection”. Perhaps, trying to be like a Martian Hitler. I’ll go with the latter.

First of all, the very fact that there is a lot of German subtext in the story should tell you one thing about the portrayal of neurodivergent individuals. This affected me initially because of the manner in which PKD writes the overarching plot. The UN is coming to “relieve” Mars of their neurodivergent population. Nazis are coming to procure the master race of blondes and blue eyed boys with no crazy in them at all.

Which, is problematic at best because it merely is targeting those who have a more visible “disability”. Yet, the book is a product of PKD’s 1962 publishing date for the book. Autism is not yet its own jurisdiction. Autism and schizophrenia still have some kind of connection. Insane asylums. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest nurses with large needled syringes.

When Manfred was a baby, she had never talked to him or shown him any affection. Having been trained as a chemist, she had an intellectual, matter-of-fact attitude, inappropriate in a mother. She had bathed and fed the baby as though he were a laboratory animal … so naturally he became autistic.” (37).

PKD is merely using the 1962 view of autism to create Manfred. Manfred is autistic because his mother is a refrigerator mother, and that’s how autism came into being, back then (not to mention the inherently sexist quip that having a matter-of-fact attitude is inappropriate as a mother). Yet, children who have autism have no representation at this point. There’s no Rain Man to point a finger at and say, “Yeah, my kid most like that”, and there’s no deeply analytical view of Sherlock Holmes as an autistic savant to read about, and there’s merely no mention of Asperger’s or of a “spectrum”.

Do I blame PKD for writing Manfred in this way? No. It is a product of the time; it is a product of his perceptions. Just like how Martian-Time Slip becomes a product of the characters’ perceptions. Manfred is given special abilities to “see the future” to make him a utility in the novel. He merely doesn’t exist as himself. He adds to the motives and desires that other character’s want in the story. Plot device.

Do I blame this John Lentz man for saying that the only meaning in the story comes on account of taking advantage of these plot devices? No. But, it’s honestly just another rung for the neurodivergent of authors continuously failing them in the past. If Martian Time-Slip was published in 2015, we’d have a different situation on our hands.

This all makes me think about myself as a writer, and about my brother. Yes, I would love to write a piece of fiction that revolves around a character with autism, but how the hell do I do it without being problematic at best? These are things I think I will come to learn as a writer, eventually, but not right now.

Lentz, John. “Cracks in the Reality of Martian Time-Slip”. Phillip K Dick: A Voice of Existential Uncertainty. 2012.

Week 9 Review

Last night, we finished our discussion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).   We started with a short clip on what seemed like a related topic: Major League Baseball’s Daniel Norris, the counterculture pitcher who lives out of his 1978 Volkswagon van, despite making millions on the mound.  We watched this video about Norris, and in Writing Response 7,
we tried to connect his live to the novel.  This was mostly for kicks, but I do like the responses.  Here is the complete set:


My point was mostly that MLB is a hyper-capitalistic enterprise, in which the right commodity (like Norris) can be worth millions and millions of dollars.  Norris appears “crazy” for resisting the materialism that accompanies giant salaries, so like in “Bartleby,” we can see a connection between a socioeconomic system (capitalism) and neurotypicality.  I think Norris is a bit like Chief Bromden, who represents both the anti-capitalistic counterculture of the 1960s (the land his tribe lives on is purchased by the government or a corporation) and a kind of counter-cultural viewpoint (schizophrenia).

From here, we watched four clips from the 1975 film version of the novel–one that Ken Kesey apparently disliked.  The clips were as follows: the World Series vote; the fishing trip; the party, and the finale.  Before viewing these, we talked through some common cinematic elements (handout).  We had two main goals in viewing these clips–we wanted to find:

  •  A significant cinematic element in each clip
  • A significant difference from the novel
  • If the two of these connect, even better

After viewing the clips, we had an in-depth, far-ranging discussion (teachers take note: film v. novel comparisons almost always work!).  We noted a few things about Milos Forman’s cinematic techniques:

  • extreme closeups for psychological insights
  • natural lighting throughout
  • ambient sound
  • camera angles to emphasize Nurse Ratched’s power (and her weakness in the strangling scene)
  • soft lighting on Nurse Ratched

We also discussed significant differences between the film and the book.  First, the film decenters Chief Bromden, removing him from narrative duties in favor of a narrative perspective that often seems close to McMurphy himself.  We were not sure how a schizophrenic viewpoint would work, but removing all of the “fog” from the narrative perspective made the movie much less about what was real v. what was imagined by the Chief.  Another point in our conversation focused on the comedic effect of the “gang of crazies,” who are sometimes engaged in slapstick comedy (on the boat; during the party).

But by far the most significant question of the night was that of misogyny: I asserted that novel was misogynistic while the film was not.  This led to insights about the nature of being a woman in the 1960s and in the here and now.  My argument was based on the lack of “good” female characters in the book, (Ratched, Harding’s wife, Billy’s mother, the prostitutes), and especially on the invulnerable depiction of Nurse Ratched.  Many of you came to her defense, however, citing the difficulty of being a female nurse in a ward that housed rapists (including McMurphy) and outlining the stereotypical roles that women in power have to occupy (vixen, nurturer).  That Kesey never lets us see any vulnerabity, any sense that Ratched falls apart when she gets home, might make the case for a misogyny all the stronger.

Great class.  The summary doesn’t do it justice.