Corinne Duyvis is a YA author and portrait artist who lives in Amsterdam, where she writes, drinks a lot of tea, and gets her geek on whenever possible. She also sleeps an inordinate amount. Find her on Twitter.
Her debut YA fantasy novel Otherbound (Amulet/Abrams, 2014) is about a boy who’s spent ten years involuntarily witnessing the life of a mute servant from another world every time he blinks–and what happens when they discover they can communicate.
Michael Grant’s Gone series came to a conclusion earlier this year with the publication of the sixth novel Light. I was lucky enough to get to read it early, and devoured it in record time. I grew up on the Animorphs books, which Michael Grant contributed to/co-wrote, and the Gone series shares several elements I loved: ensemble cast, heavy focus on characters, epic scope, moral dilemmas, high-stakes action, and utter addictiveness. In short: I sort of love these books.
… but I also sort of don’t. And the biggest thing that stops me is the portrayal of Little Pete, an autistic four-year-old boy. He’s the little brother of fourteen-year-old Astrid, who’s one of our main characters, and Pete becomes a significant character in his own right–in importance if not page time.
Spoilers will be clearly marked.
As an introduction, here’s how Pete and his autism are described in the first book, Gone:
“He’s autistic. Severely. He doesn’t–he doesn’t relate. He won’t answer [if I call to him], all right? I can yell his name all day.”
Little Pete was four years old, blond like his big sister, but freckled and almost girlish, he was so pretty. He didn’t look at all slow or stupid; in fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought he was a normal, probably smart, kid.
“He talks,” Edilio said.
“He can,” Astrid said. “But he doesn’t much.”
“He talks. Great. What else does he do?” Quinn demanded pointedly.
“He seems able to do a lot of things. Mostly we’re good, the two of us. Mostly he doesn’t really notice me.”
“Petey is not intellectually impaired […] He has at least normal IQ, and may have a higher than normal IQ.”
In book three, Lies, he’s described as follows:
Little Pete was severely autistic. He lived in a world of his own imagining, unresponsive, only rarely speaking.
I’d like to discuss various aspects of Pete’s autism. For the sake of organization, I’ll break up this review into different sections. First, I’ll discuss the details of how Pete’s autism manifests; next, Pete’s role in the narrative, particularly in relation to his sister and the overall series plot; finally, the way Pete’s autism itself is perceived.
I want to start this section with a big bold disclaimer: autism can present in many different ways. It’s not as simple as “Asperger” and “classical autism” and “PDD-NOS,” or “high-functioning” and “low-functioning,” or “severe” and “mild”—autistic people with high intelligence who seem social and easy-going may require lifelong live-in care; non-verbal autistic people may function independently and perform great in a regular college; and all the ranges in between.
Because of that, it’s difficult to point at something and definitively declare it Right or Wrong. Autism presents itself in seemingly unlikely ways for some people, and lord knows my own autism is very different from Little Pete’s. Still, there are a number of common symptoms, and there are many misinterpretations and misrepresentations in modern-day media, and that’s where I’m coming from.
And from that perspective, the portrayal of Pete’s autism never rang true to me. My biggest concern is Pete’s lack of responsiveness. Petey does occasionally react fiercely–I can think of at least two or three times he has a ‘freak-out’ in the series–but most of the time, he’s almost completely unresponsive and oblivious. This is even the case in extreme situations, which strikes me as nigh-impossible, given that one of the most common aspects of autism is a love of structure and familiarity. Unfamiliar environments and unexpected changes often result in stress which can manifest in different ways. Pete, however, doesn’t even acknowledge changes.
Take the following situations–all from Gone–as an example:
Little Pete rubbed sleep from his eyes and stared past them, indifferent to them, maybe not even aware that they existed. Maybe wondering why he was standing in the damp night air outside a nuclear power plant. Maybe not wondering anything.
Context for the following quote: Pete and his sister Astrid are in an unfamiliar hotel room, and someone is using a shotgun to blast through the door.
The door had a hole in it the size of a dime, with the metal puckered out.
Another explosion and the door handle was hanging half off.
Little Pete […] was still calm, still oblivious.
Context for the following quote: Pete is on a boat that just got hit full-on by a speedboat–their boat flipped into the water and back up, the metal twisted and torn, parts of the boat missing. There’s immense noise and panic. This is Pete’s reaction:
Little Pete was alone, staring, almost as if this at least had really penetrated his consciousness.
Pete is similarly unresponsive to touching, which many autistic people struggle with. His sister Astrid touches him in almost every scene they have together, with zero reactions: “he seemed barely to notice” (Gone); “of course he gave no response” (Hunger); “his indifferent body” (Hunger).
The way Pete tolerates Astrid’s touch isn’t necessarily improbable. In fact, some children with autism are extremely clingy with a select number of people. I would’ve accepted this as Pete simply being used to Astrid’s touch, if not for the way he fails to respond even when people who are practically strangers touch or even carry him.
This lack of responsiveness–indifference, blankness–may be realistic for some people with autism, but it’s extremely unusual. It struck me over and over again how rarely Pete actually interacted with the world around him. Most people with autism–even severe autism, even when non-verbal–do communicate in some way, and respond to stimuli, even if it’s not always in the “appropriate” way.
(For example, here’s a blog post about this from the perspective of a seemingly “unresponsive” autistic person.)
Getting caught up in particular interest, like Petey’s video game, definitely happens, but usually not to the extent that he’d be able to experience the quoted situations without any response. Those situations would be completely overwhelming.
Similarly, in Gone, the following occurs:
[Astrid] had a particular way of talking to Little Pete when she wanted his attention. She held his face in her hands, carefully blocking his peripheral vision, half covering his ears. She put her face close to his and spoke calmly but with slow, careful enunciation.
I can see the logic of blocking sensory input, but most autistic people I know–including myself–would be scared shitless by this. Being held still on both sides, a face so close to your own, is nothing but sensory input.
Again: it might be fine for some people… but it’s likely to be an exception.
The books also fail to acknowledge other common aspects of autism: Pete seems to have no problem with eye contact, which is a frequent point of difficulty for autistic people. In addition, many autistic people struggle with particular flavors and textures of food, which can make meals an adventure the moment we stray from familiar brands or methods of preparation. In the Gone series, the characters quickly run out of food and often improvise their meals with whatever is at hand. Yet, no mention is made of Pete ever having a difficult time with this.
Petey does occasionally react in ways that are common to autistic people. He’ll rock back and forth, flap his hands, and repeat words he’s just heard others say–all of which is very common. I’ve done it! Over six books, though, he only acts in ways I recognized a small handful of times. While I don’t want writers to simply go down a checklist of symptoms when writing autistic characters–as I mentioned, symptoms vary widely–in combination with the other points I raised about Pete’s portrayal, his unusual behavior struck me as more of an oversight than a deliberate choice.
HOW THE NARRATIVE TREATS PETE AS A CHARACTER
You can look at Pete’s role in the books from multiple angles: how other characters interact with him, his role in the overarching plot, and how the narrative treats him. All of that coheres quite neatly into one conclusion, though: Pete is a prop.
This is particularly evident in the scenes from his sister Astrid’s perspective. Even though she’s “the person he’s closest to in the whole world” (Gone) she doesn’t seem to communicate well with him. She recognizes when he’s about to freak out, but not whether he’s hungry or whether he fears, enjoys, or understands something. Even if Pete expresses himself differently from other kids, a sister would learn at least some of those habits by virtue of seeing him grow up. Without that insight, Pete’s character feels flat, and his and Astrid’s sibling relationship feels like it’s written from an outside perspective.
The narrative emphasizes all of this by sympathizing strongly with Astrid, to the exclusion of Pete himself. Astrid is his sole caretaker due to the disappearance of their parents–and every adult in town–and it’s continually pointed out how hard it is for her to have a brother like him. Consider these quotes from GONE:
She put one protective arm around Little Pete, who had buried his face back in his game. Astrid blinked, looked down, took a deep shaky breath, and deliberately turned away.
Astrid rose and without really thinking about it wrapped her arms around Sam like she did when she was trying to comfort Little Pete.
But unlike Little Pete, Sam responded to her touch by awkwardly hugging her back.
[S]he had to keep Little Pete calm. That was her top priority, her brother. Her blank-faced, helpless, unloving brother.
She resented him. He had turned her into a mother at age fourteen. It wasn’t right. This should be her time to shine, to be bold. This was her time to use her intellect, that supposedly great gift. Instead, she was a babysitter.
She hated him for being what he was, for being so needy […]
Astrid dropped to the ground, shielding Little Pete again, still, always protecting Little Pete.
Quotes from Hunger:
She bent over to kiss him on his forehead. Of course he gave no response. He didn’t hug her or ask her to read him a story, or say, “Hey, thanks for taking care of me, sis.”
When he spoke, it was only about the things in his head. The world outside meant little or nothing to him. That included Astrid.
She lay down beside her brother and cuddled close to his indifferent body.
“Sorry,” she said to Little Pete, who was as indifferent to her apology as to everything else.
She stepped back, stepped away, not trusting herself to be near him. Hating him at that moment. Terrified that the enraged thing inside her head would lash out at him again. A voice inside her rationalized it even now. He is a brat. He does these things deliberately.
It was all his fault.
“Ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh!”
“I do everything for you!” she cried.
“Ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh!”
“I feed you and I clean you and I watch over you and I protect you. Stop it! Stop it! I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t stand it!”
She wondered if he even remembered her loss of control. She wondered if he knew how terrified she was, how hopeless and defeated. She knew he didn’t care.
No one cared.
Part of Astrid’s feelings are understandable–being a caregiver is hard, and Astrid had to deal with that on top of enduring extreme trauma. There’s a lot of resentment, obligation, and guilt when she thinks about Pete. Although it made me wince to read, it’s a believable reaction for someone–particularly a teenager–in her position.
What seems less realistic is the lack of affection. Pete is portrayed as a burden, never as a beloved brother. Astrid says she loves him, and shows concern, but never once does she sincerely smile looking at him or seem to feel even a hint of affection. On top of the seeming lack of understanding, that made the love feel hollow.
That’s why Pete feels like such a prop: he’s there purely to make Astrid sympathetic. Pete doesn’t get to be a character in his own right, with his own personality, likes, dislikes, or agency. He has no opinions on or reactions to anything that happens. He alternates between acting as a plot device and sitting around mysteriously playing his game. Even when Astrid is forced by the antagonist to call Pete a retard, the text lingers on how difficult it is for her to betray him without giving Pete any reaction of his own–“They were meaningless words. Just words. Little Pete didn’t care.” (Gone) and “He had forced her to insult Little Pete. To betray him. It hadn’t bothered Petey, of course.” (Fear)
This quote from Light emphasizes his lack of agency and personhood even more starkly:
Little Pete was not thought to have done it maliciously–Petey was incapable of malice. Or any intention, really.
Details in the narrative also seem to treat Pete very differently from the rest of the characters. His descriptions struck me as fey and Other: he’s described as “almost girlish, he was so pretty” and as his eyes are referred to as “too-pretty” and “those innocent eyes.” (Gone) Sometimes, it strongly feels like he’s being dehumanized–treated as an animal, an object, or even a computer to be programmed. Consider these quotes from Gone:
[Astrid] started to move away, but Little Pete began to whimper. It was the sound a puppy makes when it wants something.
Little Pete began to screech. It was a primitive sound. An earsplitting, insistent, repetitive, panicky baboon sound.
“I can’t kiss you with your little brother watching,” Sam said.
Astrid stepped back, took Little Pete by the shoulders, and turned him so he was facing away.
“How about now?”
It was time to get Little Pete ready for bed. [Astrid] stood up and called to him, using the trigger phrase he understood. “Beddy boody, beddy boody.”
Little Pete gave her a hazy look, as if he had heard her but had not understood. Then he got up from his chair and headed obediently up the stairs. Obedient not to Astrid’s authority, really, but to what was, in effect, programming.
Little Pete howled like an animal. Howled like a mad thing, howled in a voice impossibly large.
“Ahhhhhhhh!” A cry of loss, a mad tragic cry.
He bent into a backward “C” and howled like an animal.
In the fourth book, Plague, Pete isn’t even a regular PoV character. Where the other characters get scenes in regular, numbered chapters, Pete’s scenes are treated more like interludes; they’re labeled with his name, in between numbered chapters. That really hit home how separately he’s treated from the rest of the cast.
These things would bother me on their own, and put together, they tick practically every box of the “dehumanization” checklist, which is unfortunate in a series that otherwise features such strong, vibrant characters.
Sadly, his role in the overall story arc isn’t much better. The next few paragraphs contain significant spoilers.
In the overall story arc, Pete is a similar prop. The trope of “Disability Superpower” is one with a long history, and even in a book where lots of people have superpowers, Pete is still the special one, with nigh unlimited power. Because this is such a familiar trope, and this review is long as is, I won’t go into this too deeply. Instead, I’ll link to other sites tackling the topic:
In addition, while I wouldn’t exactly call Pete “cured” after Plague on account of him, er, sort of dying, he’s still a conscious entity who’s suddenly no longer autistic. That falls into a different trope–the Disability Cure. Only without his autism does Pete end up saving the day, and even then it’s not because he’s grown over time, or realizes that what he did was bad, or wants to help his sister, or anything: it’s because “hitting is bad” and it made him upset.
While that’s not necessarily an unlikely motivation for a five-year-old, it doesn’t help the already simplistic portrayal of his character. In the end, Pete saving the day only reduces him to more of a plot device. I can’t see his role in the books as anything but a way of putting the cast in a far-fetched situation and promptly solving it once the series ran its course. Afterward, he doesn’t even get to have a happy ending: he dies for good.
However, as displeased as I was about both the depiction of Petey’s autism and his role in the books, it wasn’t until we got scenes from Petey’s own perspective that the books became genuinely upsetting for me to read.
PERCEPTIONS OF PETE’S AUTISM
When the reader first encounters Pete’s point of view and thus gets an inside perspective of his autism, I was a little unsure. To me, the sequences came across more like what a non-autistic person would imagine autism to be like, rather than how someone with autism would experience it themselves.
An example from Lies:
Little Pete woke up.
Dark. Dark was good. Light filled his brain with too much.
It was quiet. Good. Sounds made his head hurt.
He had to be quiet himself or someone would come and bring light and noise and touching and pain and panic and it would all come at him like a tidal wave a million feet high, spinning him, crushing him, smothering him.
Then he would have to shut down. He would have to turn it all off. Hide from it. Go back to the game, back to the game, because inside the game, it was dark and quiet.
Down there were his mom and his dad and his sister. Down there were jagged edges and harsh noises that made him want to clap his hands over his ears. When he looked at those things, those people, the wobbly, insubstantial houses, the sharp-edged furniture, the claw hands and hooked noses and staring, staring, staring eyes and yelling mouths, he wanted to close his eyes.
But it didn’t work. Even through his closed eyes he saw them. And he heard them. But he did not understand their wild, pulsating colors. Sometimes their words weren’t words at all but brilliant parrot-colored spears shooting from their mouths.
Mother father sister teacher other. Lately only sister and others. Saying things. Some words he got. Pete. Petey. Little Pete. He knew those words. And sometimes there were soft words, soft like kittens or pillows and they would float from his sister and he would feel peace for a while until the next jangling, shrieking noise, the next assault of stabbing color.
On the other side—the agitated, jangly, hard side—his sister, her face a stretched mask beneath yellow hair, a mouth of pink and glittery white, loud, was pushing at him with hands like hammers.
After a long and peaceful escape he had been recaptured by the too-much world of furious activity and disjointed images.
Life had always been strange and disturbing for Peter Ellison. From the moment of his birth the world had attacked him with noise and light and scraping touch. All the sensations that were easy for other people to make sense of were terrifying and overwhelming for him. Other people could filter things out. Other people could turn down the noise, but Pete could not.
Since experiences of autism can differ so much person-to-person, the above descriptions may ring true to some people. For me, though, they veered on simplistic. They take one aspect of autism–sensory overload–and extrapolate from there what autism must feel like, taking it into an almost cartoonish realm.
Much worse, though, is exactly how Pete’s experiences with autism are described.
The narrative talks of “the tortured, twisted, stunted brain that had made the world so painful to him” (Plague); “his distorting, terrifying brain” (Plague); “his strange, distorted brain” (Fear); “a twisted, distorted brain” (Fear); “miswired brain” (Fear); “his jangled life” (Fear); “the severe autism that had crippled him” (Light); “a life that had been short but painful” (Light); “his brain had been his enemy all his life” (Light); “a strange little boy whose own brain made him a prisoner, whose own mind made life painful and terrifying. Unbearable.” (Light)
At one point in Fear, Pete even wonders, Had he ever laughed before?
And this, to me, is where Pete’s portrayal went from “doesn’t feel truthful, contributes to misconceptions of autism” to “outright damaging.”
His autism is portrayed over and over again as being non-stop pain and suffering. That got incredibly hard to read: do people really think this is what autism is like? Even if the author’s intention is to show understanding and sympathy, portraying our experiences this black-and-white is hurtful and borders on demeaning. Our autism might make things harder, and people might struggle to understand us, but that doesn’t instantly translate to suffering. To the outside observer, things like rocking back and forth, flapping hands, being blank-faced, compulsively arranging objects, screaming, etc. may look like being trapped, but they probably look completely different from the autistic person’s perspective. Any of the above can translate to fear, tension, relaxation, happiness, excitement, or a dozen other things.
When I quoted the above excerpts to a fellow autistic friend, she commented about how it was akin to the kind of speech used by Autism Speaks, a supposed charity that’s notoriously unfriendly to autistic people. There, it’s fear-mongering; here, however well-intentioned, it’s still misrepresenting and damaging. This depiction of Little Pete skims the surface, and invites pity and horror from the audience. That’s not what autistic people need, even those who do suffer from their autism.
Presenting the experiences of autistic people as a non-stop nightmare risks putting the blame on the autism itself. It implies that autism equals suffering, and there’s no fixing it. It absolves people of the responsibility to look further and adapt.
And that’s dangerous.
I’ve often recommended the Gone series: in addition to the gripping story and characters, the series strives to be inclusive, with positive portrayals of queer people, people of color, and fat people. Unfortunately, I think it failed when it came to Pete. Although I recognized a handful of details of Pete’s autism, for the most part, his behavior felt either unlikely or flat-out wrong. In addition, he seemed to be treated less as a fleshed out character in his own right and more as a prop, often by indulging in damaging tropes.
Pete’s portrayal has both angered and hurt me, but in the end, seeing these sorts of things pop up in books I could almost love if not for…?
It just saddens me.
I hope this review helps people understand why, and perhaps recognize and avoid these tropes in their own work.