Early in 2013, I wrote a Booktopia review of The Rosie Project, the home-grown literary phenomenon that has gone on to be published in thirty-eight languages and sell over a million copies worldwide. I had originally approached Graeme Simsion’s debut novel with trepidation, being the mother of a boy on the autism spectrum and thus a little thin-skinned on the subject. Could Simsion create a portrait of Professor Don Tillman, our unlikely Aspergian hero, which was both sympathetic, but at the same time believable? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.
Not, for that matter, that Don thinks he has Asperger’s syndrome. When the Asperger’s label raises its head in an early scene in The Rosie Effect — hitherto referred to as the BlueFin Tuna Incident — he is bemused. Don regards Asperger’s syndrome with academic detachment: yes, he’s admittedly ‘somewhat socially incompetent’, yes, he once delivered a lecture on the topic back in Melbourne so best friend Gene could pursue ‘a sexual opportunity’, but apart from that, what’s its relevance to him?
This is entirely believable. Simsion has revealed in interviews that he based Don not on textbook descriptions of Asperger’s , but on real people he met in his former life in academia. People who’ve gone through life without any label except for ‘eccentric’ or ‘odd’. We can find lots of Dons in society if we care to look hard enough.
It’s during this same Bluefin Tuna Incident that Don is told by Lydia, an off-duty social worker: ‘Don’t ever have children.’ Unfortunately, Rosie has other ideas.
In The Rosie Effect, Don and Rosie have moved to live, work and study in New York, allowing Simsion to introduce a raft of new characters, including, George, a beer-collecting former rock drummer, Lydia, and a lesbian mothers collective. The novel follows the trajectory of Rosie’s unplanned pregnancy and, as you’d expect, it’s anything but smooth sailing. In marrying Rosie, Don has taken a huge step into what John Elder Robison called the ‘anxiety-filled, bright and disorderly world of people’, where his autistic traits — his honesty, his literal worldview, his capacity to absorb greats tracts of information (and perhaps less helpfully to reveal this knowledge to others) and his ability to pursue scientific enquiry without emotion or agenda — prove both a blessing and a curse.
When Gene suggests to the expectant dad that he ‘watch some kids’ to prepare himself for parenthood, Don takes himself off, alone, to video children at a playground, earning himself a visit from the NYPD. The policeman, who has a nephew like Don, quickly surmises that our hero poses no threat to the city’s children, but refers him for a psychiatric assessment:
‘I don’t think you’re a danger to kids, but I can’t just let you walk away. If next week you go and shoot up a school, and I’ve done nothing —‘
‘It seems statistically unlikely—‘
‘Don’t say anything. You’ll talk yourself into trouble.’
While there are plenty of laughs in The Rosie Effect, there is less humour to be had in Don’s floundering marriage. Rosie, he knows, is his only shot of happiness, and as an autism mum I could not help but take it personally. For much of the book we’re kept in the dark about what Rosie is up to, and Don, being Don, isn’t great at intuiting what she’s thinking.
But Simsion knows his readership: we’re expecting a happy ending and he’s not about to disappoint us. The climactic scene at JFK airport is classic screwball comedy, in typically unorthodox fashion.
How will Don adjust to fatherhood? We’ll have to wait for the next instalment to find out.
Benison O’Reilly is the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook. A new edition of the bestselling Handbook was released recently. You can follow her on twitter here.
by Benison O’Reilly & Kathryn Wicks
When first published in 2008, the Australian Autism Handbook quickly became the go-to guide for parents whose children have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. In this new edition, the book has been updated with all the latest research, the ratings guide for early interventions, new chapters on teens; Asperger’s syndrome; DSM5 diagnostic criteria; and advice for dads by dads.
Its new resources section ensures you make the most of your funding and lists every website and phone number you could ever need. Australian Autism Handbook is a practical and comprehensive guide to every aspect of raising an ASD child.