Monday, June 26, 2006

Autism and Al Capone

In one of those amazing coincidences, I read Al Capone Does My Shirts , by Gennifer Choldenko, today in one sitting and then listened to an incredible feature on autism and Asperger's Syndrome on NPR's All Things Considered.

In the 2005 Newbery honored book, Choldenko tells the story of Moose, an otherwise normal kid who happens to live at Alcatraz. Set in Depression-era San Francisco, the story weaves together cool facts about the real families of guards and staff who lived in quarters on the famous island, regular juvenile high jinks, and the special relationship between a boy and his autistic sister.

The story has the typical conflicts of making new friends at a new school, impressing girls, and family disagreements, but the unique setting puts a whole new spin on things. I loved the titular episode where Piper, the warden's scheming daughter, sells Al Capone's laundry services to the kids at school. Al Capone ran the wringer in the laundry room at Alcatraz, where all of the employees' laundry was done, as well as the prisoners'.

Autism was not a broadly recognized disorder until 1943, a fact that makes the story of Moose's sister Natalie all the more poignant. Natalie is 16, but the kids' mother refuses to admit that she has aged beyond 10 years old. The mother's denial is based partly on the fact that treatment centers viewed children past the age of 12 as beyond help and partly because of a harsh comment a relative made when Natalie was 10. A side story in the book deals with the family's attempts to get Natalie accepted to a special school that might help her get past the various obsessions and behavioral disorders that rule her life. A reader now would recognize Natalie's obsession with numbers, her ability to place birthdates, her rocking, and her inability to connect with people as traits of autism, but at the time many people just saw her as crazy and suggested that she be put away. The family's difficult daily decisions and the gentleness between the 13-year-old Moose and Natalie are a wonderful introduction to younger readers of a problem that affects more and more people all the time.

According to the Autism Society of America, autism now affects 4.5 out of every 10,000 live births. To read more about these statistics click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard the same story too and will put this book on my list. My sister most likely has Aspberger's. She's never been diagnosed but fits the profile pretty well.