The voice of Martin Dubois, the neurodiverse teenage hero of my YA novel Kids Like Us, grew out of my admiration for my youngest daughter and the beautiful way in which she came to language. Unlike me or my other children, she learned to speak through echolalia, a musical form of repetition. When she was very small, she could sing many songs and recite many books, with perfect intonation. However, it was unclear what meaning she attached to them. Eventually, she began to apply these memorized phrases and snippets to her reality. For example, she loved a French story about a little penguin named Tchoupi who goes to the pool with his grandfather. In the locker room, the grandfather warns “Be careful, Tchoupi, it’s slippery.” When my daughter and I would go out in the snow together, she would smile slyly and say, “Be careful, Tchoupi, it’s slippery.”
I was told that, because she was autistic, she was not exhibiting “original” speech, but I thought the way she was transforming what she had memorized was pretty darn original. I also thought it was very impressive given the amount of work and cataloguing it seemed to require. Whereas most of us learn language through a nearly oblivious osmosis, here was my little girl doing it with a very deliberate intelligence.
As she has grown older, her “repetition” has become so sophisticated and seamless that it is virtually impossible to hear in her speech. Her desire to communicate has made her so fast that her hard work is nearly undetectable. But social interaction is exhausting for her, and she is very clear about needing time by herself after school. Her power to transform narratives lives on in her writing. She now “rewrites” the books she loves - her latest effort is Aberham the Spy! Although it is derivative of Harriet the Spy, her version is so suffused with her own experience and interests as to be truly original.
In teenage Martin’s case, echolalia has blossomed into a passion for an old French novel, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way. Swann’s Way is a book about many things, about time and memory and the power of the senses. Martin listens obsessively to the narrator’s favorite music and quotes passages to himself in order to process sensory experiences and social interactions. The book helps him to understand the world, to relate to his friends and family, and to connect to his absent father. Ironically, it’s a complex fantasy life inside a book that allows Martin to live in the real world.
From my personal experience with my daughter, as well as from research into the richness that is autism, I have become fascinated with the countless ways that people on the spectrum will often have a guiding narrative to organize their experience.
From my personal experience with my daughter, as well as from research into the richness that is autism, I have become fascinated with the countless ways that people on the spectrum will often have a guiding narrative to organize their experience. It’s something everyone does to some degree, but perhaps not with the same beautiful rigor. The narrative can be a book or a TV show, movies, train schedules... For Martin’s best friend Layla, it’s the television series Downton Abbey that helps her understand social situations. For Martin, it’s a French novel he used to read with his dad, which also happens to be my most formative book. So, it is perhaps fair to say that Martin’s character fuses my daughter’s and my special interests, and that, regardless of how we have come to them, our thoughts are our own.
I was delighted when an autistic blogger in Australia, C.G. Drews, had this to say about Martin’s echolalia:
“Martin does a lot of echolalia — meaning he repeats back what he’s heard instead of saying his OWN words. I loved how they unpacked this topic, with Martin struggling with the idea that he isn’t original. But like…nobody is original?? All words and phrases have been said. And while he repeats things a lot, his THOUGHTS are original.”
Kids Like Us opens with Martin speeding through the French countryside on a train. He has never been to France before, but, because of his French father, he has spent his whole life picturing this place, so he feels like he is riding into an imagined world. He’s going to spend two months in a small town while his mother, a famous movie director, does a shoot. He’s excited, and he’s also nervous about attending the local high school. He wonders how he will fit in and if going to a school for “typical” kids will change him.
On his first day of school, Martin sees a girl he takes to be a character from Proust named Gilberte, and feels he is destined to fall in love with her. But he realizes, through a series of painful revelations, that she is a real person named Alice. This is both disappointing and wonderfully positive. At the same time that he is accepting her for herself, she is accepting him for who he is, a person with a unique perspective and sensitive voice. They reach out and meet one another across a neurological divide. The differences between them end up amplifying their romance.
They reach out and meet one another across a neurological divide.
While writing the book, I sometimes worried that, since I am not autistic, Martin’s voice might not be authentic. So, I was happy to learn from some autistic reviewers that the book spoke to them. Jim Sinclair, author of the wonderful blog Autistic and Unapologetic, wrote:
“Martin is one of the most relatable characters I have ever read: yes, he may have many of the stereotypical autistic features, such as an obsession, social difficulties and can often take things too literally, however, he is shown progressing and regressing from many of his autistic traits, depending on environmental factors. This is very realistic and immediately makes the novel feel unique and refreshing.”
While such expressions for Martin are very gratifying, I am sure that there are people for whom the book does not feel real. With fiction, this is unavoidable. While I had no choice but to follow the inspiration of my daughter and to amplify the voice she brought into my head, this does not mean I speak for her, or for anyone. I mostly want to raise questions and feelings.
I think that reading - and writing - help us imagine how other people, often very different people from ourselves, might think or feel. Empathy seems to me to be an ideal you can never quite attain but that you have to keep reaching for. It’s a kind of faith. As though in a perfect, impossible world we would all understand one another. For example, we could think of neurodiversity the way we think of sexual diversity. Martin at one point compares being autistic to being gay, asking his mother if she would want to “cure” him of homosexuality. Then he realizes he has made a close analogy, but not a perfect one because there are questions of communication in neurodiversity that are unique to it… We’ve all felt isolated in our own perceptions.
Does that mean we know what it’s like to be autistic? Or does it mean we are somehow capable of imagining it? You can want so strongly to empathize with someone that you can come very close. I feel intensely close to Martin, and to my daughter, but I will never quite be him or her. For me, so much of writing is this effort of straining toward the other. I hope that Kids Like Us communicates to readers some of the joy of this struggle.
Hilary Reyl has spent several years working and studying in France. She now lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her adult novel LESSONS IN FRENCH, was an editor’s pick on Oprah.com. KIDS LIKE US is Hilary’s first young-adult novel.