Today I read “Flying at Night” by Rebecca L. Brown. The book tells the story of a family: an anxious mother (Piper), her chatty autistic son (Fred), a dog, a constantly busy husband, and her formerly abusive father who is forever changed by brain damage. The story is told mainly from Piper’s perspective, interspersed with chapters written from the perspectives of Fred and the grandfather.
Since I’m autistic, I’m focusing on the autism-related aspects of the story.
What was right
Writer Rebecca Brown is the mother to an autistic son, and based on how realistically the character of Fred is portrayed, I’m guessing that she’s a pretty hands-on mom at home. The story is an accurate portrayal of what autism can look like in kids.
Fred exhibits clear signs of autism, both textbook ones (like intense special interests) and lesser-known ones (like miscalculating what other people may or may not know). Check out this excerpt from dialogue between Fred and a disability specialist:
“So you went to the hospital [to visit your grandpa] and then lunch? Where did you eat lunch?”
“McDonald’s,” Fred answered.
“Oh, McDonald’s?” Helen said.
“Yes. It’s a popular fast-food restaurant,” Fred explained.p. 60
It’s not uncommon for autistic people to have trouble guessing what other people might or might not know. The deep knowledge of autism is satisfying to read; this story comes from real experience instead of half-baked stereotypes.
Fred’s words and thoughts include charming insights. One of my favorite lines from him is “It just takes practice. But practice doesn’t make perfect; it just makes better” (114).
Brown chose to include short chapters of Fred’s thoughts. Fred’s perspective sounds real to me, sounding like a 9-year-old and showing clear traits of autism.
There are sixteen diamond shapes inside every rectangle and at least two of them are cracked in each rectangle, which means that one-eighth of them are broken. At first I felt really bad about that and wondered how she could stand it. I was thinking about the broken glass a lot. Like, how did it get broken? When did it get broken? Did anyone get hurt when it got broken?pp. 24-25
If I were looking at that display, I’d probably have similar thoughts, especially if I was bored. Fred feels real to me as an autistic person.
Fred defies the inaccurate stereotype of autistics being unfeeling. He doesn’t always understand his emotions, but they’re clearly there. At one point, he uses Google Images to view photos of a plane crash, only to see images he wasn’t ready for. “After I saw those pictures I had to tell myself the names of biplane fighters used in World War II so that I didn’t think about the bodies on fire” (92). The images of human suffering are deeply distressing, even if he doesn’t have the language to describe how or why. This sounds a lot like alexithymia, a trait that’s fairly common in autistics.
Fred is also shown to be capable of incredible empathy, stepping up to help out when his mother is frozen. He sits beside his crying grandpa, showing caring without intruding on his personal space. Fred can tell when his mother is silently angry and he can tell what his grandpa’s favorite things are (even though his grandpa’s facial expressions are limited due to brain damage).
Somewhere around halfway through the story, the mother meets an autistic adult named Jack. Jack is caring, thoughtful, witty, and really good with kids. Books about autism rarely include adults, so it’s refreshing to see an autistic adult not only included but portrayed properly.
The story touches on how prolonged parental grieving can hurt an autistic child. “Sometimes I think that Mom understands me but then I see out of the corner of my eye that she is looking at me in a sad way and I don’t understand what about me is sad,” Fred reflects (245). Another time, Fred overhears his parents arguing and assumes it must be his fault.
It’s painful because it’s true, and because these emotions are probably only going to grow in Fred. He’ll notice that his mom feels sad about him and he’ll wonder what’s wrong with him. He’ll notice that other people treat him differently. Someone will tell him the word “autism” (which his parents apparently haven’t done yet) and it’s a word he may start to hate.
There’s no feeling lonelier than think you might be a burden on the people you love. You’d die for them, but just maybe, you are causing them to slowly die.
These destructive doubts can follow autistic people for years or decades. Had Brown chosen to explore and eventually refute them, she could have given Fred a compelling story arc and perhaps taught something special to parents, autistics, and general readers alike. Yet the story misses this potential.
What wasn’t so right
Some negative stuff
Piper underestimates her son at times, claiming that he is oblivious when this isn’t likely in my opinion.
“As I watched him run around… I could tell he was completely unaware of the small cadre of children who had enrolled themselves in his play and chased around after him.”page 7
Kids are noisy, clumsy, chaotic creatures. Fred probably knows they are there; he just may not necessarily know what to do about their presence, so ignoring them seems fine.
Piper is mostly pessimistic about her son’s diagnosis, even using the phrase “f*cked up” to describe his brain. I kept waiting for the part where she lets go of her feelings of grief and anger, but she never explicitly does.
Unlike most “woe is me” autism stories, Piper does meet an autistic adult who gives her hope for her son’s future by showing her that a decent life is possible. The autistic adult character is portrayed as a caring guy who really understands kids. Still, Piper never talks about truly coming to terms with her son’s diagnosis.
Piper also blames herself for doing things “wrong,” like taking antidepressants during pregnancy. She never explicitly forgives herself, either. So while those might be real feelings that parents experience, she’s not exactly a healthy role model. Parents, please don’t blame yourselves. It’s not fair to you and it’s not good for you or your kid.
I keep circling back in my head to how Fred must feel. He’s a perceptive kid, more than his mom realizes. Her shame and anger spiral have to be affecting him. And if she doesn’t learn to make peace with reality, he will realize that her feelings are about him being different, and make no mistake: it will destroy him.
And then what shocked me
Fred’s big special interest for most of the book is WWII. On a day out, his father gives him a pocket knife and then says they can pretend to be WWII soldiers. Fred takes it too seriously and uses the knife to stab his father’s hand despite his father shouting for him to stop.
Yes, that really happens.
It seemed awfully contrived to me. For one thing, Fred is a clever 9-year-old boy who knows the difference between fact and fiction. He really should know better. For another, Brown is (likely accidentally) contributing to autism stigma.
The research has been clear: autistic kids and adults are less likely to be violent. If you take a random neurotypical and a random autistic person, the neurotypical is more likely to stab you. Autistic people would rather sit at home obsessing over our favorite things.
Despite us being so nonviolent, the media loves to blame violence and evil on autism. Mass shooters, Putin, and other bad people have been armchair diagnosed as autistic. Blaming autism lets people wave away the idea that evil is not inborn but grown, that someone they know could have hate growing within, that there is capacity for harm in all of us and we don’t have an easy answer for it.
Brown plays it off as Fred simply being confused. The characters insist he is not a violent boy. Maybe she was trying to downplay those implications, but that statement could worsen it.
I am not a violent person. My sister’s boyfriend is not a violent person. But if you take “Flying at Night” as a reliable source, then you could assume a nonviolent autistic person could suddenly attack you due to getting confused.
Listen: you could drug me with anti-anxiety medication until I am barely attached to the real world, and I still would not stab you. I get drugged up with anxiety meds for my flu shot every year and let me tell you, my stab count is zero.
“Flying at Night” might be someone’s first encounter with autism, so they might learn the wrong lesson and think that an autistic person could attack them at random.
But in the real world, nobody attacks “at random.” The most common scenarios of aggression I’ve heard of are (1) someone trapped or mistreated the child and the child reacted, (2) someone either got too close to a meltdown and an accident occurred or they didn’t realize that it’s okay to step away, or (3) the autistic kid is being abused and thus lashed out.
“The kid was playing and suddenly decided it was stabby time” is something I have never heard of happening, ever.
Please, please do not walk away thinking that autistics are ticking time bombs of unpredictable violence. That’s just not supported by evidence.
The story is more accurate and sympathetic than most of the “autism books” I’ve read, but the way it fuels stereotypes about violence are concerning to me.
Don’t read it if: emotional abuse is a difficult topic for you or if you’re an autistic person with fragile self-esteem.
Why you might like it: It is a pretty realistic portrayal of an autistic child. The main character isn’t portrayed as being always right and is straight-up told when she’s being unfair.
Why you might dislike it: It’s a sad story overall, with the Piper’s poor emotional health permeating the narrative. She shows sadness and sometimes resentment towards her son, enough for him to pick up on it and worry if something is wrong with him. And the story feeds the false stereotype that autistic people are dangerous.
I think Rebecca Brown is a skilled writer whose work can access great emotional depth. I probably wouldn’t read another book of hers unless it was happier and a little more optimistic/kind to its autistic character(s). Some of this is due to my own personal tastes.
Do I recommend it? Not really, but I do think that some people might enjoy it. And as long as you don’t make any incorrect assumptions about autism and violence, there’s nothing wrong with giving it a read.
16 thoughts on ““Flying at Night”: the Good, the Bad, the Shocking”
“Putin […] [has] been [informally identified] as autistic.”
Seriously? That’s just wrong. The fact is that Putin seems to lack empathy because he actually does lack empathy, whereas when autistic people appear to lack empathy, it’s because we’re overwhelmed by it.
I don’t know anything about how Putin’s brain works, but choosing to behave awfully and egocentrically doesn’t make someone autistic! Besides, plenty of people who lack empathy can still choose to treat others well.
I love the way Fred explained to the disability specialist about McDonalds.
I don’t know if specialists down on the ground often go to “popular fast-food restaurants” and it made me wonder what the specialist ate in their downtime or if they took long lunches.
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I found it amusing.
I think that Fred incorrectly assumed that the specialist didn’t know what McDonald’s was, when she was probably just trying to make conversation and encourage him to elaborate.
“But in the real world, nobody attacks “at random.” The most common scenarios of aggression I’ve heard of are (1) someone trapped or mistreated the child and the child reacted, (2) someone either got too close to a meltdown and an accident occurred or they didn’t realize that it’s okay to step away, or (3) the autistic kid is being abused and thus lashed out.”
Taking this paragraph out and in to think about it.
So likely all those things have happened in autistic lives old and young.
And why are they not in books?
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I think this writer just didn’t think this through and ended up with a portrayal that didn’t make sense.
Many books don’t get close to the reality of life for autistic people, including the mistreatment that many autistics endure and how it affects them.
Yes, I would have liked to see more of the mistreatment.
It would have had me stretch my empathy in a real way – showing things that really could happen.
Sense-making seems sometimes to be the enemy of some kinds of narrative, Luna.
Really happy you were able to see Frozen 2 with your sister and the noise-cancelling headphones.
I wonder if the last was available for Fred?
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Yes, I agree. Exploring the challenges he experienced, and how he handled them, could have helped foster empathy (instead of treating him like a danger to others).
Thank you. I really enjoyed Frozen 2. I never thought I’d be able to truly enjoy a movie in a theater like that!
Fred is never mentioned using noise-canceling headphones. I think it could be a good idea, though. It can make life so much calmer; I feel like every autistic person deserves a chance to try and see if it helps.
Yes [autistic people should try headphones – as well as other sensory tools and fun].
And some are effectively blocked from it by such methods as Berard and Tomatis therapy.
Berard had said “Don’t use ordinary headphones” for a while after the therapy because the sound gets scrambled up with fidelity and frequencies and such.
Yes – feeling empathy for people as opposed to the whole DANGER DANGER thing. And even being treated LIKE a danger tends to erode any or much sense of empathy. When people are always reacting to you as a threat how can you learn anything?
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I’ve never heard of Berard and Tomatis therapy before. But I feel like any headphones is probably better than no headphones, especially if the child likes them.
Yeah, that whole part of the book is just… sad. It does show Fred struggling with how other people perceive him, due to another incident later in the book (some spoilers) in which other people mislabel him as a threat.
It’s just such a sad book. A mom with a very negative standpoint on life and some relationship-sabotaging habits, a confused old man, and a little boy who is just beginning to realize that other people think something is wrong with him (without anyone bothering to explain).
I personally would have liked it more if the writer had taken it in a different direction.
Neato. I never read this book but reviews like this are very helpful in determining whether I should (for this one I probably wouldn’t regardless of whether or not it was good because I don’t enjoy reading stories about children since it’s hard to relate to).
Would you consider reviewing autism-related movies? Most of the ones I’ve watched are toe-curlingly bad though, so I can’t blame you if you don’t :p
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I would possibly review autism-related movies if I was able to access them for free and if they weren’t too horrifying. I do think I want to write more reviews in the future and movies are a possibility.
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One not-so-horrifying movie is Orca.
You do have to pay a small fee for it – the price of a Netflix subscription.
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I do have Netflix. Maybe I’ll consider it.
Good to see the openness and the wariness.
It is a wonderful Brazilian Portuguese movie about a marine biologist who engages with an autistic boy and his mother.
If you enjoy Free Willy and want more depth …
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That sounds nice.