Based on the number of made-for-tv movies and specials on the topic, Americans are in love (or at least in fascination) with all things autistic. There is something engrossing in watching people with autism and trying to figure out how their minds work, because clearly their neurons are producing in ways that a typical person's brain is not. As a special educator, I've had more than my fair share of experience with children with autism. Ranging from non-verbal, stereotypical autism to high-functioning Aspergers Syndrome, I've pretty much seen it all.
It should therefore be taken as a great compliment when I say that Yasmin, the main character in Roopa Farooki's The Way Things Look to Me felt so authentic that I started comparing her to students I've worked with as though she was a real person. The novel revolves around three siblings-Yasmin, who has been diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, and her older brother and sister, Asif and Kalila (Lila for short)-all in their late teens, early 20s. Asif drops out of university to take care of Yasmin when their mother dies unexpectedly when he is 18. Lila, younger by a year, flees home as soon as she can-and goes down a path of self-destruction that she lays squarely at the feet of Yasmin. Yasmin herself is just finishing her A levels, prior to going off to university. High functioning, verbal, extremely intelligent, Yasmin is poised to make the difficult transition from the sheltered world of her elite private school to real life.
The book examines the many ways that being a typical sibling of an exceptional child can be challenging, frustrating, and difficult. Both Asif and Lila felt that they had to fight for their mother's attention-Asif by always being the "good boy", and Lila by being loud and argumentative and difficult. The novel revolves around Asif and Lila's attempts to find happiness despite the baggage they carry about their childhood, and despite knowing that now that their mother is gone, they will not be able to escape Yasmin.
At the beginning, the most sympathetic character is Yasmin herself, which is saying something for Farooki's ability to write characters. Given that many people with Aspergers Syndrome do not feel or show emotion in typical ways, they can sometimes be seen as cold or unfeeling. When Farooki writes from Yasmin's point of view, it is clear that despite her limitations she is much more self-aware than her siblings. As the story develops, and flashbacks of their childhood are given, a clearer picture emerges of what made Asif and Lila the way they are. Farooki does not attempt to make us feel sorry for Yasmin, nor does she demonize Asif and Lila. What you get in this novel is an honest, warts-and-all account of living with autism.
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