(This review was first posted Mar 3, 2013. It has received minor edits for clarity and style.)
Today’s Book: “A Wizard Alone” by Diane Duane.
The Plot: In a contemporary YA fantasy setting, a budding wizard named Darryl has gotten stuck in his Ordeal – a wizards’ initiation. Teenage wizards Nita and Kit are sent to figure out what’s gone wrong.
Autistic Character(s): Darryl McAllister.
I really don’t know where to start with this book. Darryl is central to the plot, and there are some very good and very bad aspects of the way he is portrayed. I’m going to start with the good ones, I guess, because there are fewer of them.
First, Darryl is African-American. This is excellent because autism is so often portrayed as something that affects white male children, with maybe a few white girls sneaking in every once in a while. Intersectionality is always a plus. (Kit is also Latin-American, FYI.)
Second, Darryl is intensely good and intensely likeable. We quickly find out that he’s not a helpless victim stuck in his own Ordeal: he’s deliberately drawing it out for reasons that are complicated, but logical, and beneficial to the world around him. And despite having no support whatsoever, he approaches this task with a deep, cheerful courage that instantly endears me to him forever.
Third, the book touches on the problem of one’s preconceptions of disabled people influencing one’s perceptions of them. The first few times Kit sees Darryl, he expects Darryl to be a helpless victim, so that’s what he sees. Kit doesn’t find out the truth about what Darryl is doing until Darryl makes magical contact with Nita – who doesn’t know that he’s autistic, or even that he’s human. Kit then realizes that because he had an idea in his mind about what autistic people were and weren’t capable of, he couldn’t see what Darryl really was capable of. This is a very important point and Duane gets props for putting it in there.
Those are the good points. Now for the bad ones. First, there’s the “cure” theme: as part of what’s otherwise a fairly clever ploy at the end of the book, Nita and Kit give Darryl a magic Get Out Of Autism Free card. (Not literally a card, but you know what I mean.) I need to make a whole separate post on the problems with “cure” stories.
It’s not just the ending, though. Duane attempts to give helpful information about autism to her readers, but most of it is so incorrect that I don’t even know what to say. We are told, for example, that people are not born with autism but become autistic at various ages; that autistic people avoid eye contact because they cannot stand the idea that other people exist; that neurotypical people do not understand what autism is like because not enough autistic people have been cured and “come back” to tell neurotypical people about it; that autism is caused (at least in Darryl’s case) by the devil, and is easily magically separable from the rest of Darryl’s personality; that the withdrawal/retreat symptoms of autism are identical to the symptoms of depression; that all autistic people are hypersensitive rather than hyposensitive to sensory stimuli; and so on. I can’t talk about what’s wrong with each of these points here because it would make this post even longer than the Vernor Vinge one. But they are all incorrect and all harmful.
Furthermore, while Darryl is quite likable, many aspects of his characterization make no sense. He switches very quickly and repeatedly between being completely unaware that other people exist, and being conscious enough of them to use some fairly sophisticated theory of mind. Not only does this speed of switching make no sense, but there’s no middle ground. Darryl never has any realistic impairments in understanding people’s beliefs and motivations, he just forgets that they exist. Duane makes attempts to explain this, but they make no sense either. Apparently, Darryl’s autism causes the world around him to be too painful to deal with, so he intentionally forgets that other people exist, and then remembers again for a while, and then forgets again, and… Yeah. It’s just silly.
The big thing that bothers me about this book, though, is the conflation of autism with depression. This is not a minor point. A significant subplot of the book involves Nita grieving for her mother’s death (which happened in a previous book) and struggling with her own depression. There are some nice things about how this subplot is handled. But Nita doesn’t start to beat her depression until she makes contact with Darryl – and realizes that her withdrawal from the world, in her depressed state, is identical to his. Not that Nita is autistic, of course; they just happen to both be withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement with the world because it’s too painful. After talking to Darryl, Nita realizes that this is unhealthy for her and she has to stop. She talks Darryl out of it too, which is where the Get Out Of Autism Free card comes in.
Never mind that Darryl is kicking epic-level supernatural butt in his Ordeal while withdrawing from “real”, “meaningful” engagement everywhere else. Apparently that doesn’t make his withdrawal more acceptable. Duane pays attention to Darryl’s awesomeness when she’s actually talking about him, but she’s happy to ignore it when she’s using him to make a point about NTs.
This bothers me for a very personal reason.
Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders affect autistic people too.
Did you read that? Depression is not the natural state of an autistic person. It is a mood disorder that either NT or autistic people can develop, which means there’s actual intersectionality between depression and autism.
A depressed autistic person does not need you to cure their autism. A depressed autistic person needs you to fix whatever is causing the actual depression – whether that’s an imbalance in brain chemistry, an abusive home/work situation, poor mental coping strategies, or what. If you’re going around saying “but autism is just like depression anyway”, you are NOT HELPING.
And that’s the part of “A Wizard Alone” that’s going to really stay with me.
The Verdict: Not Recommended
NOTE: Diane Duane is aware of criticisms of the portrayal of autism in this book. In the New Millennium Edition of her Young Wizards series, a lot of things are updated, and the portrayal of autism is one of the updated things. The New Millennium Edition of “A Wizard Alone” is reviewed separately in Autistic Book Party, Episode 9.
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.