De nobele autist
Moving debut about a mother and her son, who has autism and learning difficulties
Romana Vrede created a much-acclaimed theatre show about her son Charlie, who has autism and a learning disability: Who’s Afraid of Charlie Stevens? He is also the focal point of her debut novel, The Noble Autist.
Vrede’s biggest fear is that no one will be able to give Charlie the care he needs once she dies – that there will be no one left who understands him. The book starts with her imagining Charlie’s death, a death she won’t be around to witness, but which, with great compassion and affection, she explores in fictional form: ‘I now give you my presence in print.’ She then tells the story of her life before Charlie – of how she fell in love with his father, the moment of his conception, his birth and the realization that he was different from other children.
She describes the happy moments, and calls him the wisest person she knows. But the constant care of her son is hard on her: he is non-verbal, can’t go to the bathroom independently, and can be so physically aggressive sometimes that his care worker ends up getting a brain contusion. She describes the despair and the exhaustion, the reactions from other people, her own shame in public and her sense of guilt about that. She doesn’t always explain or defend his behaviour in public, and ends up feeling like ‘a sad black woman with her sad black child.’
The chapters are told from the perspective of the mother, who regularly quotes from books and plays. Charlie’s fictional response to her story is told in footnotes. This is how the author gives her non-verbal son a voice, with the novel creating the space for some- thing that is impossible in real life – a dialogue between mother and son. Vrede’s determination to empathize with her son rubs off on the reader. The Noble Autist is a call for compassion for those who are different, but above all it’s a moving declaration of love from a mother to her son.