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.