09 July 2007

Making Off with The Lightning Thief

On Friday, Ann Giles devoted her blog on the Guardian's website to "The best Aspie fiction," meaning books about and for young readers who have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

Giles included Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (the Potterian British title for The Lightning Thief) on her short list of "great Asperger's fiction" for young readers. Separately she lists "books that aren't openly Aspie, but that have a real Aspie feel to them," writing, "Kate Thompson's book [The Last of the High Kings] is really about Irish fairies, but I suspect they are closet Aspies, just like Rick Riordan's American half gods."

Yet Riordan clearly didn't write about young people with Asperger's syndrome. His narrator, Percy Jackson, is explicit about the diagnoses he's received: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. In addition, he's a world-class wiseass. All of which he traces back to being son of a Greek god.

This morning a commenter called Giles on her choice of Riordan's book, writing, "I would say that while Rick Riordan's LIGHTNING THIEF series is meant to show ADHD and dyslexia; I've heard him speak and he did not mention Asperger's as a part of his books." Indeed, on his website Riordan states, "Making Percy ADHD/dyslexic was my way of honoring the potential of all the kids I've known who have those conditions."

To which Giles replied, "I agree about the Percy Jackson book, but ADHD is close to AS and I think the way the half god children feel different fits in just as well with Asperger's. It's that outsider feeling, being different, that readers need." But Giles didn't include Lightning Thief in her list of "books that aren't openly Aspie"; she included it on the main list and confidently stated that its heroes are "closet Aspies."

I disagree with Giles's comment that ADHD is "close to AS." The two diagnoses can overlap and be confused, but the whole point of separate diagnoses is to recognize each in order to allow the best understanding and treatment. Dr. R. Kaan Ozbayrak's Aspergers.com website notes, "DSM-IV prohibits diagnosing ADHD when there is PDD [a pervasive developmental disorder such as Asperger's] since all the ADHD symptoms can be attributed to PDD. Clinicians who overlook other symptoms of PDD tend to diagnose these children as ADHD." In other words, assuming kids with Asperger's syndrome actually have ADHD is a common mistake, and it's a mistake for doctors to treat children with Asperger's as if they had ADHD.

Giles apparently feels that "that outsider feeling" is all that's needed to define "Aspie fiction." But that feeling isn't confined to children with Asperger's traits, nor would they necessarily see themselves in any character who feels like an outsider. Percy Jackson shows no hallmarks of Asperger's syndrome. To claim that Riordan wrote about "closet Aspies" looks like projecting one's own concerns onto his work, neither respecting his characterization nor the distinct qualities of young people with Asperger's.


Anonymous said...

"The outsider" is a standard character in imaginative fiction -- no conflict if everything goes along smoothly, right? It seems remarkably high-handed to associate that feeling in a character with the particular diagnosis that the reviewer is interested in. After all, the character could be alcoholic, or adolescent, or Midwestern-come-to-the-Ivy-League, or Philadelphian-come-to-Oz . . .

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it would be good to distinguish between fiction that's about a person with a particular condition (be it medical, psychological, or social) and fiction that people with that condition might enjoy or relate to.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to tell if this kind of thing is providing something that's just trying to tap into a market to provide a service or to just make money.

J. L. Bell said...

Rick Riordan, it's clear, chose to write about a young man with ADHD and dyslexia diagnoses because his own son was dealing with those challenges.

As for the Guardian columnist who considered Riordan's book to be about "closet Aspies" instead, she has no financial stake in having people see the book that way. She's just eager to identify fiction that addresses Asperger's syndrome, or serves young people who have it. Perhaps a little too eager.

Anonymous said...

I have a child with Asperger's and we LOVE the books and there is no way Percy has Asperger's. Simply no way.

Did Giles read the criteria for Asperger's before making this judgment?

Thanks for a perfect rebuttal.