With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child
Written and illustrated by Keiko Tobe
Top science fiction publisher Orbit – home to the likes of Iain M Banks and Charlie Stross – is finally dipping its toes into the field of graphic novels: in conjunction with the Yen Press they are launching a series of manga books. Included in this inaugural group is a very large work (over 500 pages), With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, by Keiko Tobe, winner of the Excellence Prize (manga) at the 8th Annual Japan Media Arts Festival in 2004. When her first-born child is delivered during the rising of the morning sun Sachiko decides to call him Hikaru, essentially meaning ‘light’; its an expression of hope, the deepest wish of any new parent that this new arrival on planet Earth that they are responsible for will bring warmth and joy:
“…The morning sun was very beautiful the day you were born… Hikaru… What do you think of the name Hikaru?”
“Sounds good. Hikaru Azuma. Maybe he’ll move up the corporate ladder like the rising sun.”
“I’ll raise him with all my love. My adorable boy who came to me with the morning light…”
Sadly Hikaru’s infancy will prove to be anything but simple and joyful. Early on Sachiko starts to worry about her child – unlike other babies he doesn’t seem to like being held (imagine how painful that simple thing is, for a mother to have a child who doesn’t want to be hugged and held by her), he doesn’t react normally to stimuli. At first doctors are unsure what the problem is, thinking perhaps he has a hearing impairment, but after Hikaru creates a major scene at a family event she takes him to another centre to be examined, where they find that he is autistic. The diagnosis brings out a mix of emotions in Sachiko – on one hand she’s relieved to learn what it is that is wrong with her child and that she isn’t to blame for his condition (her demanding mother-in-law is convinced Sachiko is a slacker who doesn’t care for her husband or son properly, adding to the pressure on her, and clearly blaming Hikaru’s behaviour on her). On the other hand she, like most of us I suspect (unless we know someone affected by it), doesn’t really know what autism is, nor can she share her worries with her mother-in-law or her husband Masato, who largely ignores her and his son, working all hours, never talking to her and only acknowledging the boy when his crying disturbs his sleep.
It’s the start of a very long road that is going to be full of obstacles, poor communications and lack of interaction – almost a metaphor for the problems the autistic child faces, in a way. Family and other young mothers who Sachiko should be able to rely on, who should be her peers and friends, turn away, either not understanding or refusing to try and understand, even after the diagnosis. People see Hikaru’s behaviour and leap to the obvious (wrong) conclusion, that he is ill-behaved and it is must be the mother’s fault – even medical professionals leap to this conclusion at one point on a trip to hospital, so poor Sachiko is forever having to excuse Hikaru’s behaviour and explain it to those around her, something anyone who has a medical condition or cares for someone who has will be all too familiar with, not to mention having to endure ‘normal’ children growing up and learning and wondering why her, why is her child not like them? What does the world hold for such a child as he grows up?
But before I give the impression that this is some sort of tear-jerker, it isn’t – actually it is quite uplifting and inspiring. Selfish husband Masato suffers a collapse from overworking but this is a blessing in disguise as he realises how he had let work intrude too much on his family life; we also see just a little from his point of view, that his aloofness and late night working sessions weren’t just a way of avoiding family responsibilities, he was trying to excel at work to benefit his family, but let it take over. Even the dreaded dragon of the mother-in-law slowly comes around as she realises just what autism is and what Sachiko has had to cope with. Now as a family they renew their efforts to try and help little Hikaru-kun develop as best he can – after a lot of struggle they find good therapists and schools and, to their delight, find some of the other ‘normal’ kids understand Hikaru’s condition when it is explained to them and become supportive of him, the family’s dearest wish that he might have some semblance of normal life slowly starting to happen.
It isn’t a perfect book by any manner of means – Sachiko is perhaps too nice, the sweet, long-suffering mother and daughter-in-law, rarely speaking out even when those around her are cruel (although she develops more as she has to fight for Hikaru, which is perhaps the point) and in a 500 page book it might have been nice to see a bit more development of other characters too (some changes of heart from antagonistic to understanding happen a little too quickly). And it is pretty text-heavy too, but to be fair this is mostly to try and explain about Hikaru’s condition so I can’t really fault Keiko for that. But those are niggling points, really; the actual story is incredibly moving – you would have to be utterly heartless not to feel a lump in the throat when Hikaru finally calls Sachiko ‘mommy’ and the utter joy this simple utterance causes Sachiko. Although the story itself is not autobiographical in a direct sense, Keiko did talk to parents who have raised autistic children – the book is littered with little notes pointing such parents to where they can pursue some of the practical ideas the Azumas use to help Hikaru to use for their own children and, in a very nice touch, some first-hand accounts by parents of autistic children are included at the end.
As I have said several times here, I’m not a big reader of manga, so tackling such a large manga work did seem a little daunting. And I did have the occasional trouble with it where sometimes the flow of the panels didn’t work quite right for me and I’d realise things didn’t make sense, stop, go back and re-read, but that only happened a handful of times. Incidentally that gave me an idea of what non-comics readers encounter when they first tackle the medium – its easy to forget that the ability to read sequential art correctly is indeed a skill we’ve learned over years and can apply without thinking too much about it until we find something unusual. Actually I liked that it made me think about the structure of the comic a bit more than I may have otherwise, which isn’t a bad thing either – I’ll be more understanding of the non comics readers next time my book group tackles a graphic novel, for instance.
And the book comes with a good introduction section explaining clearly and visually how the Japanese system of reading right to left works and how the reader should follow the pages and the panels, which is ideal for newcomers (and quite welcoming too), as well as some information on how things like ‘sound effects’ work in manga and an explanation of Japanese titles such as ‘san’, ‘kun’ and ‘sensei’ rather than assuming the reader will already know all of this. Which again is a good idea, especially in the case of With the Light, which is a book I can see people who don’t normally read manga – or comics at all, for that matter – picking up because of the subject matter (and I’d encourage them to do so).
The large-eyed manga art isn’t something I am normally fond of, but the story was too engrossing for me to be bothered by that after a few pages (and that is, after all, a personal bias as I am more used to Western comics art) and as it progressed it became quite natural (I also liked her use of paler, almost monochrome watercolours for flashback scenes and dreams); likewise the almost soap opera elements of some of the book, another genre I am not normally too keen on or familiar with, worked well here and drew me in. Although some parts are a little too idealised (quite so many nice school teachers and kids all helping is a nice thought but seems hopeful rather than realistic), overall the tone seems honest and I’d imagine any parent caring for a child with disability of any kind will find a lot here they will recognise (or indeed just any parent since a fair bit of the hopes and worries the Azumas have would apply to raising any child).
Kudos must also go to Keiko Tobe for raising awareness of a serious condition that many of us may have heard of (several times characters who aren’t sure what autism is refer to ‘that guy in Rain Man, you know’) but don’t really understand – no, it isn’t caused by your upbringing, the parents are not to blame, the child is not just acting out a tantrum or ignoring you for the sake of it; their senses work differently from most of us and they process the world and the people in it differently. As with many things in life a little more patience and effort is needed to deal with such a child, but, as With the Light makes clear, they can be helped, they can experience happiness and develop, they can still make friends, learn, play and grow if helped rather than just shunned, or tucked away somewhere. I’d recommend this to anyone as an absorbing and very emotional read (old cynic that I am I was still very touched by it), but I’d especially recommend it to parents raising ‘different’ children and to teachers and librarians as a good book to encourage readers to pick up (both students and teachers) and perhaps develop a little understanding and tolerance of their own, something we could all do with. We’ve always stood on our virtual soapbox here to tell people that the graphic novel medium can handle all sorts of serious, heavyweight subjects exceedingly well – how nice to find my own bias challenged as I find so too can manga. For anyone looking for further information on autism, try visiting the National Autistic Society’s webpage.