Reading about autism can be helpful in so many ways. Some titles offer specific forms of advice: how to find employment, how to handle relationships, how to succeed in college. Other books, such as the AAP’s estimable What Every Parent Needs To Know, provide medical expertise across a variety of issues. Still, others give us a slice of life from a family affected by the autism spectrum, providing us real anecdotes from real people, the kind that make us laugh, cry, and learn. Autism and the World According to Matt by Liz Becker is one of those books. Across a large collection of small anecdotes, we learn about Ms. Becker’s son Matt and the difficulties he has faced and overcome as a person with autism. Though the journey is long and not without its bumps, Matt is able to graduate from high school and begin the road to self-determination.
Ms. Becker is a gifted storyteller who captures pivotal chapters of Matt’s life with passion and evocative imagery while remaining comfortably readable, avoiding getting lost in the details or losing the reader with a barrage of witty asides. Perhaps the author’s scientific background helps her to balance a colorful narrative with detailed reporting, just as it informs her zeal for finding answers to the questions in Matt’s life. Still, the writing is anything but dispassionate, perhaps best seen in a passage that recounts Matt’s reluctance to move away from his native Virginia – not the federal sprawl of Northern Virginia but the natural splendor of Appalachia, a part of America that’s as worthy of sentimental attachment as any. (Matt is a diehard Virginia Tech fan, too.) Though my local scenery is no comparison, Matt’s desire to remain home reminds me of my own deep-seated attachment to Chicagoland and all the good and bad within. Even as The Autism Channel tempts me with South Florida sun, I don’t feel truly comfortable away from what I know best.
Staying on this point, it bears noting that Matt and I are roughly the same age. We both grew up in a time before today’s comparative ubiquity of autism awareness. Nonetheless, our experiences were very different. While Matt can be said to have moderate to severe autism, he benefited greatly from a sound intervention strategy. Without a diagnosis and strategy, I spent years floundering academically and socially, appearing instead as someone who just didn’t want to “play the game” or have friends. What Ms. Becker does in Autism and the World According to Matt is further underscore not only the primacy of gaining a diagnosis, but how parents must always be learning, always trying to help. Even though we know more about autism today than we did when Matt and I were kids, it’s still incumbent upon parents to remain active advocates every step of the way. Ms. Becker shows parents just how this is possible, though making clear that it’s never easy.
Regrettably, my copy of the book contained several misspellings and typos that, as someone who reads not only voraciously but professionally, were somewhat arresting. While I’d be remiss in not mentioning these errors, I’ve realized that I may finally have to surrender in two theaters here. First of all, things like “and” for “an” are innocent mistakes, especially in the realm of autism publishing, where truly dangerous lies are allowed to run rampant. Furthermore, the great democratization of publishing is not without its perils, and one of them is that with fewer gates, there are fewer gatekeepers. We may have to accept that copy editing and proofreading hold lesser roles in a New Normal of self-publishing and e-books, a tradeoff for hearing voices that may have gone unheard in a publishing industry without today’s less populist spirit. And let’s be frank: given my own spot on the spectrum, I’m going to be more sensitive to minutiae like this. My experience is not necessarily yours.
Parents and young adults on the spectrum can both enjoy this collection. Good autism literature respects the attention spans and time constraints of its prospective readership and presents itself in a format that allows for short bursts of intense reading: books that can be put down as easily as they can be picked back up, allowing active brains or active lives to interrupt reading sessions without the loss of momentum that has stopped many a dedicated reader from going cover to cover. (Ask my copy of The Brothers Karamazov.) Parents will appreciate Ms. Becker’s devotion not only to her son with autism but to her whole family, and should feel emboldened by the author’s tireless advocacy for her son in a world that too often prefers the path of least resistance. For fellow readers in their twenties, Autism and the World According to Matt is an especially poignant read, allowing us to compare, contrast, and empathize with the book’s subject – an outsize and likable character indeed.
Perhaps the most striking anecdote in Ms. Becker’s collection involves happening upon her visibly distraught son, complaining that his memory is compromised, and that years of his life have been bulk-erased from his brain. There were many situations I could relate to throughout the book. This was emphatically not one of them, and so it is that I can’t get it out of my head. Ms. Becker suspects a particularly nasty bout of pneumonia, or even a novel means of adaptation whereby Matt is made to forget his most trying challenges as the only way to fully move forward. We never discover what wipes Matt’s neural slate clean. I may not find myself up at night fearing that I too will one day wake up without recollections of my life – I wouldn’t mind some eternal sunshine for a few select years – but I do find myself thinking about how even with remarkable progress, this thing of ours is still a series of mysteries within mysteries, more unknowns than knowns, a puzzle with unlimited solutions or no solution at all, depending on where you’re standing.