Kids Like Us
Written by Hilary Reyl
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
There appears to be great interest in depicting individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in popular media. Mark Haddon’s 2004 YA novel, The Curious Story of the Dog in the Night-Time, remains a popular choice for junior high school English reading lists, and the novel has recently reached new audiences through a hit Broadway show based on the book. One of Netflix’s most recent shows, Atypical, follows the plight of a teen who aspires to hit the same milestones of love and dating that his peers experience. In Hilary Reyl’s Kids Like Us, the author presents us with Martin, an American teenage boy with ASD whose French love interest may or may not love him for the right reasons.
Martin, along with his sister and their mom, have just temporarily relocated to France. Mom is working on an on-location shoot of a Hollywood film which has precipitated this move and with certainty, this change and upheaval becomes a litmus test for Martin. Not only does his ASD require him to find ways to adjust and adapt, living in France forces him to work through new situations where he must learn how to read people and also to reasonably work on being outside of his comfort zone.
For most, change and adaptation are part and parcel of everyday living. For Martin, however, his struggles with understanding the world of neuro-typical teens will not diminish with these changes; he will be navigating a whole new social order only in a foreign country. Social interaction among adolescents is already fraught with discomfort. Being so removed from routine and the familiarity of L.A. generates stress until he meets the lovely Alice, a young woman whose moniker becomes Gilberte to him by way of his fascination with Marcel Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental brain disorder that affects how the brain functions. Those with ASD experience difficulties in social communication as well as social interaction. In Martin, the reader sees that his stress levels increase when he finds himself in an unfamiliar situation. As a reaction to stressors, a person with ASD relies on routine or they may act out in repetitive patterns of behaviour or fixate on specific interests or activities; in Martin’s case, he adores Marcel Proust’s writing and experiences the world through a Proustian lens.
What I liked about the story is the author’s depiction of Martin. She is able to deliver on presenting readers with a three-dimensional character who is very self-aware about his social shortcomings as well as his understanding of others. Martin is genuine, kind, and loving—qualities that are not always evident when depicting individuals who have been diagnosed with ASD. He is insightful about his friendships with his new schoolmates—is their friendship based on his mother’s job or are they sincere in wanting him around? His obsession with Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu manifests itself in his connection with Alice and the madeleines that they share. And while I wanted to know more about some of the secondary characters in this book, one can understand why some of these characters are not more multi-dimensional—this is in keeping with Martin’s perception of others. With the exception of Martin’s immediate family and his best friend, Laila, who is a young woman with ASD, one feels a sense of distance and removal from other key characters in the novel.
Finally, one cannot help but feel that the title of Proust’s book foreshadows what this summer will mean for Martin as he matures and reflects back on this experience. His summer in France will become one of those memories that he will ruminate upon throughout his adult years with both meaning and longing.
Reviewed by Jse-Che Lam
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of Kids Like Us in exchange for an honest review. Read our Review Policy HERE.