An Unusual Boy is a sympathetic portrait of family life with a child on the autism spectrum

Most of us don't know what it's like to live in the chaotic world of a family trying to deal with a child on the spectrum. Picture: Shutterstock
Most of us don't know what it's like to live in the chaotic world of a family trying to deal with a child on the spectrum. Picture: Shutterstock
  • An Unsual Boy, by Fiona Higgins. Boldwood, $26.95.

Being different is hard when you're a kid on the spectrum. You just want to fit in and have friends, but you don't know how to do it. Your difference makes you stand out. You're not the same as other kids, and you don't have the skills to make judgements and connections.

You can't read signals from adults and other children. You have trouble with boundaries. Sometimes, any attention feels better than no attention.

As a society, we like to think that we now live in a world that is more understanding and accommodating of children who are psychologically different. But is this true? How far have we really evolved? What is it like to be a parent of a child who is wired differently?

And how do families cope with the social repercussions of a "different" child's idiosyncrasies? What are the challenges of navigating school and sport and other social activities? And what happens when something goes wrong? Who is there to help?

This is the subject matter of An Unusual Boy, a new novel by Fiona Higgins. Like Higgins's other novels (The Mother's Group, Wife on the Run and Fearless), An Unusual Boy explores social issues in contemporary society, especially as they relate to families and modern parenting.

The narrative is told through the eyes of Julia Curtis, mother of three children whose husband is often away overseas for work, and Jackson, her 11-year-old son who struggles with behavioural issues.

Julia is juggling school drops-offs, work, her children's after-school activities, and the unique daily challenges thrown up by Jackson. She works closely with a child psychologist and strives to put strategies in place to manage Jackson's behaviour.

But it's tough. And relentless. She's exhausted, often functioning as a sole parent and running from one task to the next, trying to put out spot-fires everywhere.

Psychologists have described Jackson as neurodiverse. He wakes noisily at 5:15am every day. He often behaves wildly. He's never invited on playdates. And he sees the world through an unconventional lens, having frequent conversations with his "Dead Granny" on his shoe-phone.

He wants to belong, but he doesn't fit in. He's trying to do what his parents want him to do, but it's almost impossible. Stress only adds to his difficulties ... and there's plenty of stress in social interactions when you're not sure how to conduct yourself.

When things go seriously awry, Julia finds herself in a battle to protect her son.

While keeping her family afloat, she has to figure out how to help Jackson, keep her marriage intact, and shield her other children from the worst of the fallout.

Fortunately there are some kind people in her circle of friends and acquaintances who offer support. But not everyone is what they seem. As Jackson so aptly observes: "Lots of people are different on the outside to who they are on the inside".

For those of us who are parents, it's easy to judge Julia's family life and Jackson's behaviour. Parenting isn't easy, and we all have to deal with challenges while raising our offspring.

We might also have seen children acting up, just like Jackson. And we often put those struggles down to poor parenting or lack of boundaries.

But it's far more complex than that. Most of us simply don't know what it's like to live in the chaotic world of a family trying to deal with a child who is somewhere on the spectrum.

This is where Higgins succeeds beautifully. She illuminates the trials of life for parents, child and siblings in this situation. And she does it with candour and empathy. She carries us into Jackson's family home and helps us begin to understand.

Although the narrative is sometimes confronting, An Unusual Boy is a fast and excellent read. Higgins draws the reader through with her intimate style and keeps us in the headspace of her characters.

Her observations of children and family life are sympathetically and insightfully drawn. There are elements all parents will relate to.

The belligerent parent on the sidelines of a kids' soccer match. The playdate where things go wrong due to lack of parental supervision. Parental struggles to manage kids' screen time and access to social media. Bullying at school. First boyfriends.

This is a novel all parents should read. As parents, we are part of a community, and this novel enhances our understanding of how difficult life might be for other parents.

This is not to understate or diminish the various challenges that all families face.

But rather to bond us in our shared goal of raising young people who, as far as possible, are loved, accepted and functional in this world.

  • Karen Viggers is an author of contemporary fiction set in Australian landscapes. Her latest novel is The Orchardist's Daughter.
This story Sympathetic portrait of family life first appeared on The Canberra Times.