Friday, July 25, 2008

In Which the Gentle Librarian Manages to Read Manga: With the Light by Keiko Tobe

I've never been very open to manga. I'm not fond of the artistic style, for one thing. I have a particular distaste for those big, sentimental manga eyes. To me they look hokey, like something you'd see painted on black velvet at Honest Ed's, or on the kind of Hallmark card I liked when I was about six. I also find the manga back-to-front orientation difficult to follow. Anyway. With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe was involving enough to break through my resistance.

With the Light is fiction, but is based upon extensive research on autism and interviews with families of autistic children. It follows a new mother, Sachiko, from the birth of her son Hiraku until his early elementary school years. Lots of little details make this story come to life. Tobe shows us Sachiko's growing unease with her child's peculiarities and difficult behavior, her husband's blame and rejection of them both, and Sachiko's growing depression caused by her son's lack of emotional attachment to her. Sachiko is a strong and determined mother, and the story of how she heals her family and learns to understand her child and eventually consider herself blessed is very sweet and somewhat humbling. The meticulous planning and organization it takes to run Hiraku's life is truly daunting, and Tobe shows it to us again and again. When his elementary school plans a track and field day, for example, Hiraku's parents and educators begin preparing weeks beforehand. Hiraku is shown photos and videos of previous track meets, given his mouse costume to wear beforehand, and acclimatized to the sounds he will hear. The school switches from shots to hand signals to mark the beginning of each race to accomodate Hiraku's discomfort with loud noises. It is only with this slow building up of routine and high level of community involvement that Hikaru can participate in this special event without distress.

What I liked about this book was how it showed the initially separate worlds of an autistic child and his parents converge through persistence and understanding. The baby who strained away from his mother when she tries to hold him eventually becomes a child who lays flowers at her feet when he senses her sadness, even though he is still unable to make eye contact. The parents who drove themselves crazy trying to tell their child how to behave are happy to later discover that he beomes cooperative when they use picture cards and hand signals to supplement their words. Building up a loving connection is a slow process in the family of a child with autism, but when it comes, each moment is savoured.

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