Autistic Book Party, Episode 20: The Children Star

The Book: “The Children Star” by Joan Slonczewski

The Plot: A religious colony on an inhospitable world – and the mysterious intelligent life that might exist on that world – are threatened by corporate machinations.

Autistic Character(s): ‘jum, a young orphan who is brought into the colony at the age of six.

“The Children Star” is an environmentalist plot with a large cast, similar to Slonczewski’s slightly better-known book, “A Door Into Ocean”. (In fact, it occurs hundreds/thousands of years later in the same universe, though knowledge of the previous book is not necessary.) ‘jum, despite appearing in the book’s very first scene, is only a secondary character; the main protagonist is Rod, a grown-up monk who helps manage the colony.

What can we say about ‘jum? Not too much. She’s methodical, curious, and has a savant mathematical ability. She’s also deeply traumatized (she was impoverished, a child laborer, and a target of street violence to begin with, and then the entire rest of her family died of a prion plague). She’s suspicious of other people, and makes a habit of carrying rocks in her pocket to throw in self-defense. That’s about the sum of what we know about her for most of the book. She gets screen time (even as a POV character), learns/discovers things, gains skills, forms allegiances, and seems to have plenty to do. I’m having trouble explaining why, despite this, I feel like something big is missing for ‘jum.

Maybe, in order to talk about what’s missing for ‘jum, I need to talk about what’s missing for Rod. Rod feels great love and protectiveness towards children, and is always trying to save just one more (which is how ‘jum gets in despite being over the recommended age). As soon as we touch down in Rod’s colony, though, we start to see problems with how he puts those feelings of care into action.

Two of the boys were running out, ten-year-old Chae and four-year-old T’kun… Then little Gaea dragged herself through the dust on her arms, her paralyzed legs trailing behind her. Gaea had spina bifida–Brother Geode had thrown up his woolly arms when Rod picked that one, but so it was. The colony would have enough to fix her, someday.

So. Uh. Yeah. Accomodations? What are those? Apparently this colony’s way of dealing with disability is to take disabled children in, cross your fingers hoping you can cure them at some vague point in the future, and until then, they can just LITERALLY CRAWL ON THE GROUND, no big deal. That’s what everyone does when they’re low on resources, right?

The colony’s attitude towards ‘jum is not much better. Of course they love her! She is one of the family! But when it comes to understanding or accommodating ‘jum’s autism, very little actually happens.

‘jum has problems adjusting to her new surroundings, as any traumatized child would. The biggest problems come from her interactions with the other children. ‘jum either warily avoids them, or crosses her eyes when they approach in order to study her own perception. In response, the other children laugh at her, taunt her, even physically shove her. Which results in her throwing rocks. It’s not a very good interaction.

So what is Rod’s response to this interaction? Not much. The other children’s behaviour gets shrugged off without correction or discipline. ‘jum herself is basically told to try harder and stop avoiding the other children. In Rod’s opinion, it is ‘jum’s social withdrawal that is the root of the problem, not the actual bullying.

As a strategy for fixing a bullying situation, this works about as well as it’s ever worked in real life. Which is to say, not at all:

“‘jum still keeps to herself too much,” Geode went on. “She won’t look at another child without crossing her eyes. Of course the others make fun of her. And then-” Geode shook his head.
“She hit Pomu’s leg this time,” said Haemum. “He needed three stitches. I’m sorry–I’ll watch her better.”

None of which actually convinces Rod that maybe he should enact some sort of actual anti-bullying policy, or help the children to mutually resolve their differences and understand each other, or anything like that. Instead, he comes out with this gem:

Suddenly, Rod wished he had left her to die on Scarecrow Hill. She was half-dead then; a day or two more would have ended her misery, and never brought the colony the burden of this traumatized child. The depth of his own feeling surprised and shocked him. Whatever good he might do was all useless in the end, if he could feel such hardness toward one suffering human being.
But the girl was alive, here; and somehow she had to be dealt with along with the tumbleround and the defunct lightcraft. A voice from long ago welled up within Rod, the voice of his old Academy Master. He held ‘jum by the wrists and made her face him. “Listen. You are one of us, and you will live by our rules. Do you understand?”

Look. Just.

If you are writing a book about a person caring for an autistic child, and your caretaking character is supposed to be sympathetic, DO NOT DO THIS. Do not show your character wishing their child was dead. It is not okay. Why not? Because when people believe that wishing autistic children dead is normal and reasonable and something any sufficiently stressed-out character would do under the circumstances, they end up actually murdering their autistic children. Okay? Just… don’t do this, even rhetorically. Don’t. Please.

(Also, do not physically grab autistic children and push them around so you can yell in their face, and do not use yelling in their face as a solution to an ongoing problem which basically consists of them being bullied and trying to defend themselves. But by this point in the review, I think those are givens.)

In case you are worried, things do end up getting better for ‘jum. Mainly because she ends up no longer living with stupid Rod and instead doing interesting scientific research with a lady who is not part of the colony. The same lady also manages to cure Gaea’s spina bifida with magic plants, so, yay.

It’s an ensemble cast, and I don’t think it was the author’s intent for us to think that Rod is always right about everything. He’s a flawed protagonist who tries hard, suffers a fair bit, gets in his own way, and is sometimes (very gently) called on his bullshit by other characters. He is critical of himself, in these cases, and takes the correction. However, no one – even the lady who ends up adopting ‘jum – ever ends up calling him, even a little, on the way he treats ‘jum. Nor is ‘jum shown having any particularly interesting internal thoughts about the matter. Of course I can’t read Joan Slonczewski’s mind, but one ends up with the strong impression that, rather than being an intentional depiction of an ableist society, these parts of the book are simply an authorial blind spot.

‘jum herself is okay, I guess, but readers who have any experience of autism should probably pass this one over.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.