Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Autism Manga!

I finally got my hands on the first volume of Keiko Tobe's ongoing manga series, With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, which I think does a wonderful job of showing how its protagonist (the young mother of an autistic boy, who in this first volume grows from a newborn to an elementary-school-aged kid) adjusts to the discovery that her son's life probably won't go the way she had fantasized before he was born.

Near the beginning of the story, when Sachiko (the protagonist) first learns that her fussy, temperamental baby boy, Hikaru, is autistic, she goes through a period of mourning.

She cries when she sees other people's cute, talkative, well-mannered toddlers (like the one shown at left) and thinks to herself that Hikaru will never be like that.
Particularly, she wishes he would call her "mommy." Hikaru doesn't speak, you see.

He also won't make eye contact, and avoids directly interacting with anyone.
This makes Sachiko miserable at first --- she feels like Hikaru is rejecting her, and at the same time her marriage is suffering because her husband, Masato, works long hours and gets angry with her when he comes home and Hikaru is having a tantrum and can't be calmed down, which happens often.
Sachiko is loneliest in this first part of the story, when she doesn't yet feel anything but grief toward her son, and she's estranged from her husband, and her husband's family thinks she's a lousy wife and mother, and she can't bear to be with her friends anymore because their typically-developing children depress her.

The only person in her life who offers her a sympathetic ear is her frail, elderly mother, from whom she keeps most of the less-pleasant parts of her life secret for fear of making her worry.

But the story doesn't stay in this rut for very long; little by little, Sachiko learns to spot the signs that Hikaru loves her, and since love is the main thing she wanted from him, this makes her happy.

Here's the scene that represents this turning point:

As sugar-coated as this might seem (Oh, he really does love me! He picked me some flowers!!), most of what happens after this point (as well as all that's come before) makes it clear that Sachiko's life is not easy. (Neither is Hikaru's, though --- that's one of the things I like most about this portrayal of a family with an autistic member: the author/artist clearly empathizes with Hikaru as well as Sachiko, and neither pits one against the other nor treats one as an extension of the other).

One of the major things that changes, once Sachiko realizes she loves Hikaru, is that she starts to notice external, systemic barriers Hikaru faces, and fights to change them. That's another thing I really like about this book --- it explicitly places Hikaru's autism, and Sachiko's efforts to get his mainstream elementary school to admit and accommodate him* in a wider context of societal ableism. Characters who are initially hostile to Sachiko and Hikaru showing up at their child's school or day care are often shown to have a disabled family member of their own (in one lady's case, an elderly mother who has trouble walking and needs physical therapy) whose struggles to get their needs met in a society that doesn't see them, and isn't built with them in mind, brings the initially hostile character around to Sachiko's side.

Hikaru does learn to thrive in his new environment, but it's very much a team effort that allows him to do so. His mother, his father, his special-ed teacher, the other teachers in his school (who have all had a crash course in Understanding and Dealing with Hikaru Azuma, courtesy of the principal), and his classmates all do their part in keeping Hikaru safe and happy, and in teaching him, little by little, to talk, to play with other children, to share, and to be polite and friendly.
The main reason Hikaru does so well, it seems, is that other people are willing to meet him halfway: find out what he understands, what he wants, and start there.

If you're a manga reader, you might want to pick this one up. While it's true that Sachiko, and not Hikaru, is the point-of-view character, and as such we see Hikaru primarily through her eyes rather than his own, I still think there's a lot in this story for autistic readers to appreciate. For me, the radically pro-disability-rights sentiments expressed in this story (in Sachiko's growing conviction that her son should be able to participate in society as fully as he can, and that, to make that wish come true, she'll need to enlist many other people's cooperation) and the explicit tie-ins to other disabilities, made With the Light a lot more interesting than most raising-an-autistic-child memoirs.

It was also interesting to see some indications of how people in Japan think of autism, particularly which misconceptions are common there. It seems like the Japanese lay understanding of autism is rooted a lot more in folk psychology than it is here. In America, I think we mostly think of autism as a disease, and a very big, scary one at that. In Japan, I got the impression from With the Light --- and its helpful Translator's Notes! --- that autism is seen as an extreme manifestation of introversion. (The Japanese term for autism, I read, translates roughly to "self-closing syndrome" or "cloistering syndrome").

*This book gave me the impression that the usual practice in Japan is for disabled students to go to their own specialized schools, though sending disabled students to mainstream schools isn't unheard-of, either. In the U.S., it's a lot more common for disabled students to go to the same schools as everyone else, even if they stay in separate special-ed classrooms all day.


hollywoodjaded said...

Oh, this was beautiful Lindsay. Thanks for posting about it. I loved the part with flower :-) Loved it.

mike stanton said...

Thank you for this.

It has finally persuaded me to go and buy the copy of this book that has been tempting me for months from the shelves of my local bookstore

Kowalski said...

Now I've got an internal battle, my curiosity against my extreme dislike for mangas (those huge puppy eyes and helpless fragile women...ack!) Great story nevertheless.
It's the same over here, we have separate special schools for disabled students.

One Sick Mother said...

Thanks for posting this. I hadn't heard of it. will definitely get a copy for myself, and will probably share it with my son Joe, who is 11 and HFA.

renaeden said...

I would like to read this. I would have to buy it rather than borrow it as I think I would like to colour it in.

Corina Becker said...

Oh very nice! As a manga fan and a comic artist, I will have to pick this one up then.

thank you very much for your review!

TheWiredOne said...

That book sounds awesome. I think I might get two. One for me and another for a friend of mine who is really into manga. I'm not really into manga, but I do like anime movies, especially those made by Miyazaki. My favorite is Spirited Away.

Lindsay said...

"I would like to read this. I would have to buy it rather than borrow it as I think I would like to colour in it."

Ha! Yes, I was strongly tempted to do that, too. (I resisted it, though --- library book).

It'd take forever to color this one in, too --- it's much, much bigger than your standard trade-paperback-size manga. I think it had three or four hundred pages.

Lindsay said...

Kowalski, the fragile-woman thing is definitely at work in this one, even though it's a woman-centered story and conveys some pretty feminist ideas about child-raising (i.e., that it's unreasonable to expect one woman to do all the child-rearing/housework on her own, especially when she has a disabled child) and caregiving in general (that helping people who need help is something that all of society should be doing, not just individual families).

Sachiko, especially at the start of the book, is quite a shrinking violet: she cries a lot, she feels helpless all the time, she shrinks from conflict and is very easily upset by criticism. Her husband and her mother-in-law tyrannize over her. She does learn to stand up for herself over time, though.

Zimmie said...

My local used bookstore had the third volume, and I read a bit of it. The main storyline in that one was about Sachiko trying to convince her mother to accept and accommodate Hikaru – which sounds similar to the school issue here, but also resonated personally with me. There was also a side plot about Hikaru... interacting with a kaleidoscope, which I found touching and interesting. The author was taking time to explore his idiosyncratic relationship with the world in a tender and realistic way, which I found very, very heartening.

Japan, from what I've heard, is a very ableist society – it's primarily a very conformist society, and the ablism comes from that.

Lyn said...

I love this series, but I hate reading it at the bookstore because it MAKES MY EYES GET WET

Which is a bit embarassing, but it's so sweet. Not sickeningly so either.

Jeff said...

Wow! I've just found your blog and begun picking through it. It looks great.

I'm especially glad to see some discussion of autism and comics, since that's a particular interest of mine. I've spent the last couple years collaborating on a graphic novel about autism that we will be finishing up next year.

The first part is complete and posted on our website at . We'd love to get feedback from you and your readers as we complete it.

Lindsay said...

Hi, Jeff!

That's awesome that you're doing a graphic novel about autism --- I will definitely give it a look sometime soon.

Comics aren't a major focus on *this* blog, but you might want to check out HandiCAPEable!, which is by an autistic guy who draws a webcomic with multiple autistic characters called "Ruby's World," and writes critically about representations of disability in superhero comics.

Nini said...

Amazing. Not many people know about this.. I only have the first book and I wish to get the rest if ever I have the chance.. hehe. Thanks for the shareeee. <3