Madison author Jacqueline Houtman avoids labels in The Reinvention of Edison Thomas

Relating to autism

Fact Number 3.14159 from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas: The loudest noise ever heard by human ears (in recorded history) was the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in Indonesia on Aug. 27, 1883. The sound was heard 3,000 miles away, and shock waves from the explosion circled the earth seven times.

Edison Thomas ("Eddy") files away astounding facts and retrieves them when things get overwhelming. He's a sixth-grade science whiz who hates loud noises, can't read social cues and uses his email account only to order parts for his inventions (never to "correspond with human beings"). Though it's never stated outright, Eddy has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder many neuropsychologists consider a less severe form of autism. With her debut middle-grade novel, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (out this month in hardcover from Front Street/Boyds Mills Press, $18), Madison author Jacqueline Houtman adds a super-smart but socially clueless young inventor to the growing pantheon of fictional characters with autism.

Beginning in 2003 with Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (a novel that was written for adults but crossed over big into the young-adult market), a spate of middle-grade and young-adult novels have featured autistic protagonists struggling to cope in a "neurotypical" world. All are blessed with unique gifts (single-minded focus, brilliant analytical skills) that make for compelling characters.

Autism is on the rise: New statistics from government-funded studies reveal that one in 91 American children - and one in 58 boys - are affected by autism-spectrum disorders. Wisconsin's funding for in-home autism treatment programs, approved in 1994, draws families to relocate to Madison and other Wisconsin cities because of quality providers and strong support networks, says Molly Immendorf, past president and current board member of the Autism Society of Greater Madison. Her group offers educational workshops, speakers and social opportunities for families with autism.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and Immendorf sees a book like The Reinvention of Edison Thomas as one more way to raise awareness and, hopefully, inspire empathy.

"With Asperger's, for example, it's common to have an intense interest," says Immendorf. "If young readers recognize some of [Eddy's] traits in one of their classmates, they may begin wondering what that kid's 'intense interest' is. They may think he or she might be a good person to know."

But both Immendorf and Houtman caution about making generalizations. Autistic children may share some traits, but each child is a unique blend of abilities and limitations, says Houtman.

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas opens with Eddy fuming about winning only third place in the school science fair. The project worked perfectly, but, as Eddy's dad bluntly tells him, Eddy spent too much time obsessively unwinding and rewinding his copper coil. And his poster wasn't so great. Sulkily, he files the project in a box at home labeled "Unappreciated Inventions," suspecting that one day, it will come in handy. One day, it does - but not in the way readers might expect. Before that happens, Eddy endures (and learns to stand up to) painful bullying, invents a traffic-calming device for a dangerous intersection and embarks on a dangerous crossing of his own: over the chasm of isolation, toward friendship.

Kirkus Reviews called Houtman's middle-grade novel a "wry debut" and praised the "strong and satisfying" science theme. You'll find yourself rooting for Eddy simply because he's so darn brilliant. Heads up, smart kids: Even you might miss some of the sly intellectual jokes sprinkled throughout the book. It took me two reads to catch that Random Fact 3.14159 (above) occupies the pi value in Eddy's memory. Snap!

Eddy, despite his formidable intellect, has a tough time at school. Like many "Aspies," he must think twice as hard as "neurotypical" kids about when, and how, to express emotion. He doesn't understand why people sometimes laugh at him. And it takes him awhile to catch on that Mitch, his longtime buddy, is the perpetrator of some pretty nasty tricks. The "I'm a Geek" sign on Eddy's back is just the beginning of a casually cruel bullying campaign that will have readers burning with injustice. Haven't we all been there?

Houtman wanted to show that Eddy is not so different from other people. She hopes readers will like him, understand his challenges, and realize why kids like him do the things they do.

"Everyone has horrible memories of middle school, even the 'popular' kids," she points out. "For a character on the 'spectrum,' the struggles are just more amplified."

Houtman, a freelance science writer with a Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology from UW, admits she's intimately familiar with Eddy's struggles. There's a bit of her in Eddy, as well as several other people close to her. Still, she rejected a first-person narrator because she felt the intimate tone wouldn't fit with Eddy's search to understand himself. Third-person creates a bit of muted distance, highlighting the loneliness Eddy (and others like him) must feel.

Eddy has all the classic hallmarks of Asperger's, but Houtman doesn't come right out and say so in the book.

"I didn't want to label him," she explains. "People have certain expectations for what autism looks like, and I wanted readers to get to know him as a character first."

Three more books with autistic characters for young readers

Anything but Typical
(Simon & Schuster, 2009), by Nora Baskin.
Sixth-grade Jason is a deep thinker and excellent writer. If only he could navigate the world of "neurotypicals." 2009 ALA Schneider Family Award winner

Marcello and the Real World (Arthur A. Levine, 2009), by Francisco Stork
17-year-old Marcello is pressured by his dad to get a "real job," a challenge for a boy with Asperger's. 2009 ALA Schneider Family Award winner

Mockingbird (Philomel, April 2010), by Katherine Erskine
A 10-year-old girl with Asperger's deals with her brother's death in a school shooting. 2010 ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee

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