Told from the first-person perspective of an autistic boy, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s novel is an enlightening story for anyone who has ever worried about fitting in.
Jason Blake is an autistic twelve-year-old living in a neurotypical world. Most days it's just a matter of time before something goes wrong. But Jason finds a glimmer of understanding when he comes across PhoenixBird, who posts stories to the same online site as he does.
Jason can be himself when he writes and he thinks that PhoneixBird-her name is Rebecca-could be his first real friend. But as desperate as Jason is to met her, he's terrified that if they do meet, Rebecca wil only see his autism and not who Jason really is.
By acclaimed writer Nora Raleigh Baskin, this is the breathtaking depiction of an autistic boy's struggles-and a story for anyone who has ever worried about fitting in.
Chapter One Most people like to talk in their own language.
They strongly prefer it. They so strongly prefer it that when they go to a foreign country they just talk louder, maybe slower, because they think they will be better understood. But more than talking in their own language, people like to hear things in a way they are most comfortable. The way they are used to. The way they can most easily relate to, as if that makes it more real. So I will try to tell this story in that way.
And I will tell this story in first person.
I not he. Me not him. Mine not his.
In a neurotypical way.
I will try—
To tell my story in their language, in your language.
I am Jason Blake.
And this is what someone would say, if they looked at me but could only see and could only hear in their own language:
That kid is weird (he’s in SPED, you know). He blinks his eyes, sometimes one at a time. Sometimes both together. They open and close, open and close, letting the light in, shutting it out. The world blinks on and off.
And he flaps his hands, like when he is excited or just before he is going to say something, or when he is thinking. He does that the most when he’s on the computer or reading a book. When his mind is focused on the words, it separates from his body, his body that almost becomes a burden, a weight.
Only his fingers don’t stand still while they wait. They flap at the ends of his hands, at the ends of his wrists.
Like insects stuck on a string, stuck in a net. Like maybe they want to fly away. Maybe he does too.
In first grade they put a thick, purple rubber band across the bottom bar of his desk chair, so Jason would have something to jiggle with his feet when he was supposed to be sitting still. In second grade Matthew Iverson sent around a note saying, If you think Jason Blake is a retard, sign this, and Matthew got sent to the principal’s office, which only made things worse for Jason.
In third grade Jason Blake was diagnosed with ASD, autistic spectrum disorder. But his mother will never use that term. She prefers three different letters: NLD, nonverbal learning disorder. Or these letters: PDD-NOS, pervasive developmental disorder– non-specific. When letters are put together, they can mean so much, and they can mean nothing at all.
From third grade until this year, sixth grade, Jason had a one-on-one aide, who followed him around school all day. She weighed two hundred and three pounds. (Jason asked her once, and she told him.) You couldn’t miss seeing her.
But the thing people see the most is his silence, because some kinds of silence are actually visible.
When I write, I can be heard. And known.
But nobody has to look at me. Nobody has to see me at all.
School doesn’t always go very well. It is pretty much a matter of time before the first thing of the day will go wrong.
But today I’ve gotten far. It is already third period. Mrs. Hawthorne is absent and so we are going to the library instead of art class. This is a good sign. You’d think art class would be one of the easiest classes, but it’s not. I mean, it’s not that it’s hard like math, but it’s hard like PE. A lot of space and time that is not organized.
Anything can go wrong in that kind of space.
But not in the library. There are computers in the library. And books. And computers. Keyboards and screens and desks that are built inside little compartments so you don’t have to look at the person sitting next to you. And they can’t look at me.
When we get into the library, somebody is already sitting in my seat, at my computer. At the one I want. Now I can’t breathe. I want to log on to my Storyboard website. I was thinking about it all the way here. I have already had to wait so long. I don’t know.
“Jason, this one is free,” the lady says. She puts her hands on my shoulders. This lady is a lady I should know, but her face looks like a lot of other faces I don’t know so well, and I group them all together. Her face is pinched, but her eyes are big, round like circles. Her hair doesn’t move, like it’s stuck in a ball. She belongs in the library or the front office or my dentist’s office.
But she is here now, so I will assume she is the librarian.
I know from experience that she is trying to help me, but it doesn’t. I can feel her weight on my shoulders like metal cutting my body right off my head. This is not a good thing.
I also know she wants me to look at her.
Neurotypicals like it when you look them in the eye. It is supposed to mean you are listening, as if the reverse were true, which it is not: Just because you are not looking at someone does not mean you are not listening. I can listen better when I am not distracted by a person’s face:
What are their eyes saying?
Is that a frown or a smile?
Why are they wrinkling their forehead or lifting their cheeks like that? What does that mean?
How can you listen to all those words when you have to think about all that stuff?
But I know I will get in trouble if I don’t look at the lady’s eyes. I can force myself. I turn my head, but I will look at her sideways.
I know the right words to use.
Last year Jane, my one-on-one, taught me to say, “I am okay just as I am.”
I am okay just as I am.
She told me I had to say something in this sort of situation. She said that people expect certain things. She said that people will misunderstand me if I don’t say something.
This is one of the many, many things I need to run through in my mind, every time. Also the things my OT, my occupational therapist, has taught me:
Look people in the eye when you are talking (even if this makes it harder for you to listen).
Talk, even when you have nothing to say (that’s what NTs do all the time).
Try to ignore everything else around you (even when those things may be very important).
If possible put your head and your body back together and try very hard not to shake or flap or twirl or twitch (even if it makes you feel worse to do this).
Don’t click your teeth. (These are the things people don’t like. These are the things they hear but can’t hear).
“I am okay just as I am,” I say, and I take a step forward. I want the librarian to take her hands off my shoulders. The weight of her hands is almost unbearable, like lead. Like the lead apron the dentist puts on you when you get an x-ray, a crushing rock while the technician counts to ten. And you can’t move.
Or they will have to do it all over again.
Also, I want to stand close, so there will be no confusion that I am next in line. The person at the computer turns around to the sound of my voice. It is a girl. Most girls look the same, and I can’t tell one from the other.
Long hair. Earrings. Different tone of voice.
I don’t know who this girl is, or if she already hates me, but chances are she does.
The girl doesn’t say anything, so I have to look at her face and figure it out. Her eyes are squinched up, and her lips are pressed so tightly together they almost disappear. I recognize that she is unhappy or even angry, but I don’t know why.
“You are breathing on me,” she says. “You’re so gross.”
“Gross” could mean big or refer to a measurement or weight, but in this case it doesn’t. It means she doesn’t like me. She is, in fact, repulsed by me, which is how most girls react. My mom tells me not to worry. My mom tells me I will find a girlfriend one day, just like everyone else. I will find someone who sees how “special” I am. I know no girl will ever like me. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try.
But maybe I am wrong.
I hope so.
I hope I am wrong and my mother is right. But usually I am right about these things.
“I was here first, Miss Leno,” the girl says.
Miss Leno is the librarian’s name.
“Jason, here,” Miss Leno is saying. “Sit here. You can use this computer.”
But I can’t use that computer. I don’t want to. I can’t. My breathing is too loud inside my ears. I stiffen my body, solidify my weight, so she can’t move me with her hands. You’d be surprised at how quickly people will try to move you with their hands when they don’t get what they want with their words.
I wish Jane were here with me right now and then this wouldn’t happen. Words don’t always work.
“Jason, hold still. There’s no need to get so upset. There are plenty of other computers.”
Miss Leno is trying to shift my weight off my feet, and she’s trying to pretend she’s not, as if she’s just walking with me, instead of pushing me, which is what she’s doing.
“Jason, please.” But she doesn’t mean please. There is no please in anything Miss Leno is asking. She is pulling me.
I feel off balance, like I am going to fall. I need to shift my weight back and forth, back and forth, rock to stabilize myself. I can feel my chance to use my computer getting further and further away from me. There isn’t even enough time left in the period. I might not get to log on at all, even if this girl does get up. A hundred little pieces threaten to come apart.
“Jason, please, calm down. Calm down.” Miss Leno’s voice sounds like a Xerox machine.
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin Reading Group Guide
Jason Blake is anything but typical. He tells his story in his own language, that of an autistic twelve-year-old boy. He is intelligent and sensitive, with many special gifts, and he is different. We learn of his sensitivity and “differentness” as he writes about his life and describes his world. Through his writing, which he posts on a writing website, he meets another young writer, Rebecca, who responds to the post of his story. Jason is intrigued with this girl in his life and fantasizes about her being his girlfriend. Jason’s challenges in school, socially, and at home all portray his difficulty in navigating normal life situations. Complicating his life is his desire to have a girlfriend, and his fear of meeting Rebecca and of her rejection becomes almost too much for Jason. By facing his fear and meeting Rebecca, he is able to grow and ultimately accept himself.
1) How do we know, right from the beginning of the book, that Jason is not a typical twelve-year-old? Name some of the characteristics he exhibits. Are these behaviors things you have seen before?
2) The letters NLD, nonverbal learning disorder, and ASD, autistic spectrum disorder, are labels used to identify the symptoms Jason displays. Describe what it would be like to have a conversation with Jason.
3) Does it seem that Jason has a hard time understanding what other people are doing or asking of him? Give an example of a communication from Jason’s point of view. What things does he notice? What things are hard for him to tolerate? What things doesn’t he notice or respond to?
4) What are some of the techniques his therapist suggests he use in order to communicate with NT (neurotypical) people? Do you think these are easy or hard for Jason to do?
5) What does Jason do well? What is he particularly knowledgeable about?
6) Describe Jacob’s relationship with his mother, father, and younger brother Jeremy. How has Jason learned to communicate with each of them? What do they do that makes communication with Jason possible? What about his relationships with his aunt, uncle, cousins, therapists, teachers, and librarian? Who is most successful communicating with Jason?
7) Jason’s writing, and his use of the writing website, is an outlet that allows him to be anonymous and to be known to others without their awareness of his autism. What do we learn about Jason from his writings?
8) When Jason and Rebecca begin to correspond on the writing website, how does it affect Jason’s life? Is he successful in sharing this relationship with others? How does it change how he feels about himself?
9) Through the dialogue in the book, we get insight into how Jason’s mind works. Describe the difference between how Jason perceives things and how his “more normal” brother, Jeremy, does.
10) In Chapter 10, Jason is sent home from school, after causing a huge disruption in art class. Everything about the episode shows us who Jason is and how he perceives his surroundings. Describe how Jason experienced the events of art class, and then present the point of view of the teacher and other students. Finally, once Jason is at home, how do his parents see it? We also find out more about how he feels about his parents. What does he tell us about his dad? His mom?
11) In his story about Bennu the dwarf, Jason explores the possibility of a person being fixed of the thing that makes them different. What parallels can you draw between Bennu and Jason?
12) When Jason’s parents reward him with a trip to the Storyboard convention, and he finds out Rebecca is attending as well, describe the dilemma that Jason faces. What is his biggest fear? How would you handle facing the same fear of exposing who you really are to someone you liked?
13) How did Jason end up going to the convention? What does he tell us about his relationships with his dad and mom?
14) What happens to Jason after he meets Rebecca? Is Jason’s reaction to Rebecca understandable? If you were Rebecca and had just met Jason, how do you think you would react? What questions would you ask yourself?
15) During the convention Jason says that he will never write again. He feels himself shutting down. Do you think that he will continue to write?
16) What happens in the writing workshop that turns Jason around? How is he able to communicate with Rebecca the last time they see each other?
17) How does Jason use Bennu to show his own happy ending? Do you think Jason has also accepted himself?
18) What makes a person who they are? Is it how they look, what they wear, how they act? Does Jason know that he is different from other children?
19) Is Jason’s family able to accept him as he is? Does Rebecca accept him? Does that help Jason accept himself? Explain why or why not.
20) Through Jason’s voice, we can experience the thoughts and perceptions of an autistic child. Do you think readers of this story will have a better understanding of autism? Support this position, using examples from the book that help explain autism.
1) Many young people use writing as a way of sharing who they are: it helps them find a voice that they don’t have in talking with people. Try writing something that reveals something about yourself that you may find difficult to tell but that you can write about. The expression that Jason experiences from writing frees him from some of his limitations. What do you feel as you express yourself in your writing?
2) Autism, or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex and unique way of decoding the world. On the following website you can find out more about the disorder and how it affects people:
The signs or symptoms of autism can include:
Problems with communication—both verbal and nonverbal.
Difficulties with sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation.
Routines or repetitive behaviors—such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways.
About the Author:
Nora Raleigh Baskin grew up in New York. She has written several young adult novels including The Truth About MyBatMitzvah and What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows. She also teaches writing and lives with her family in Connecticut.
This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Prepared by JoAnn Jonas, MLS, Youth Services librarian, reviewer, and Children’s and Teen Library Services consultant.
Nora Raleigh Baskin is the ALA Schneider Family Book Award–winning author of Anything But Typical. She was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for her novel What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, and has since written a number of novels for middle graders and teens, including The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah, The Summer Before Boys, and Ruby on the Outside. Nora lives with her family in Connecticut. Visit her at NoraBaskin.com.
*“Baskin’s delineation of an autistic boy’s world is brilliant.”--Kirkus, starred review
* “Luminous....This is an enormously difficult subject, but Baskin, without dramatics or sentimentality, makes it universal.”—Booklist, starred review
“Should readily captivate readers and open eyes.” –Publishers Weekly
"Baskin reveals not only the obstacles that Jason faces, but also his fierce determination to be himself at all costs. Jason is a believable and empathetic character in spite of his idiosyncrasies. Baskin also does a superb job of developing his parents and younger brother as real people with real problems, bravely traversing their lives with a differently abled child without a road map, but with a great deal of love."--School Library Journal
“A children’s book that’s every bit as subtle and smart as the best adult novel.”—nytimes.com