Since my last read with an autistic main character contained harmful rep, I was nervous about reading another one by an allistic (non autistic) author. But this one was a breath of fresh air, and it was such a relief to read a story that made me feel SEEN and that handled issues of ableism so much more appropriately.
When My Heart Joins the Thousand is about two disabled teens (17 & 19) with tragic pasts falling in love. Alvie is autistic and Stanley has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as Brittle Bone Disease. Because his bones break easily, he uses a cane, occasionally a wheelchair, and ends up in the hospital a lot. Their story definitely isn’t a light hearted or an easy one. It was messy and devastating at times. They’re both dealing with mental illness as well: Alvie with PTSD and Stanley with depression. But it was still a pure, adorable, and heart warming story with an an ending that made me sigh with contentment and satisfaction.
I’m gonna talk first and foremost about the autistic rep. I felt that it was on point, realistic, relatable to me as an autistic person. Alvie has meltdowns (the term ‘meltdown’ is actually used!!), she has sensory issues with smells and with touch and has a terribly hard time communicating, catching social cues, reading expressions, and all that. She’s very socially awkward and often says things that make people cringe or or give her weird looks.
But she ALSO has a job, can drive, and can take care of herself, which I loved. All autistic people are different and a lot of people seem to think that no autistic people can possibly be independent.
I did find her lack of social skills/inability to read people a little over the top at times. Her constant absence of question marks was a little excessive. She never used inflections when asking questions, she always made them sound like they were statements:
“What are you doing here.”
“Where are you going.”
“Are you ok.”
Etc. But I’m sure many autistic people are actually like this, even if I’m not. Maybe it’s realistic to some autistics, I don’t know. That was just a small thing though.
I’m also always a little wary when autistic characters have an ‘Aspergers’ diagnosis, since it’s technically not a thing anymore and has been changed to just ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder.’ A lot of people tend to think Aspergers and Autism are different things but they’re NOT. If you’re autistic, you’re autistic. If you have ‘Aspergers’ you’re autistic.
The words autistic and autism were used though and her aspergers diagnosis wasn’t treated like something entirely separate from autism so it wasn’t a huge issue. I’d just personally rather not see ‘Aspergers’ used as a diagnosis in books anymore. Even if I myself was technically diagnosed with it. I just feel like it’s a way to divide ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ autistic people, and put us into two neat little boxes, when it’s really not that simple or linear. Autism is a spectrum and is a lot more complex, not just a straight line with “mildly autistic” at one end and “severely autistic” at the other. The author didn’t make it seem that way though, so that’s good!
Those were my only two drawbacks though, so back to the good stuff!!
Alvie’s special interest was animals. Or more specifically, rabbits. She reminded me of myself when I was 12, not because she was childish, but because as a preteen I would read up on lots of different animals and recite facts about them at random times. My special interest was once animals just like Alvie’s was and I could relate deeply to her love for animals and the way she felt more connected to them than to most people. ALSO I WILL ADMIT THAT I’VE NEVER READ ‘WATERSHIP DOWN’. EVER. All I know is that it’s about rabbits. But I loved all her little references to it and they made me reaaaally wanna read it.
Steiger did an excellent job at portraying the difficulties that we autistics often face. The ways in which we’re misunderstood, the ways people react to our differences, the harm that being ‘weird’ and ‘different’ can bring us. That one scene with the police officer where he thinks she’s doing something suspicious because she’s stimming/rocking back and forth and fiddling with a stim toy in her pocket… was just scarily accurate. Her mom also literally said to her “I know there’s a real you hidden in there somewhere” which is the absolute worst thing autistic people can and have been told. Neither are things I can relate to fortunately but I know many autistic people can.
I also appreciated the fact that the author stressed multiple times that being autistic isn’t bad, that it’s not a personal failing, that it’s not something to be ashamed of was really important. Steiger made it clear that just because autistic people don’t fit into “normal” people’s expectations of behavior doesn’t mean they’re lesser or should be treated poorly. Although Alvie struggled a lot with self acceptance, there was never any suggestion that she needed to be “fixed” or “cured.” It was obvious the author wanted the reader to know that Alvie herself wasn’t the problem, that it was everyone else’s attitudes towards her differences that was the problem.
Alvie’s mistreatment by her mom and classmates was never made to seem like her fault or like it wasn’t a big deal, and I really appreciated that. She reacted to the bullies, she fought back, and their behavior wasn’t dismissed by Alvie or by the author, even though the bullies weren’t actually punished. I’m just glad the author stressed how horrible they really were. That is unlike the last book I read, where the mistreatment of the autistic character seemed to be downplayed and brushed off by the autistic character himself as well as everyone witnessing his bullying.
Alvie deals with a lot of ableism from everyone around her and it can get a bit stressful to read about at times but the author handled it really well in my opinion.
This book also focuses a lot on sex and on Alvie’s feelings towards sex. I don’t mean it was full of sex scenes, just that Alvie and Stanley talked a lot about it and both had their reservations about it even though they were clearly attracted to one another. Alvie’s initial reasons for wanting to have sex with Stanley were not healthy at all. She basically felt like she needed to fix herself and prove to herself that she could be normal. But I was very glad the author handled this the way she did. I’m glad neither of them rushed into sex. They talked about consent and were both very patient with each other and never pushed one another. There isn’t a lot of graphic sex, just a short semi descriptive sexual scene near the end, but throughout the book Alvie is very vocal about sex. She asks a lot of questions and makes some really blunt remarks; it was honestly pretty hilarious and I loved it. I loved how unafraid she was to be upfront.
This definitely felt like upper YA or maaaaybe even NA. Not just the content but the story and the way it was written. And I loved that, but be aware of that going in!! Alvie is living on her own in an apartment, she’s got a full time job, and she’s looking to get emancipated. So, she was forced to grow up very fast and isn’t exactly living the typical teenage life.
Stanley was sweet and patient and adorable and I loved him so much. He was perfect for Alvie. He accepted her for who she was and was super understanding and he literally bought books on autism so he could learn more about it which was just sksksksk SO CUTE. He was kind and not judgmental even when Alvie said really weird things and behaved ‘abnormally.’ He was bewildered at times by some of her quirks: like her tendency to spout random animal facts, but never in a way that seemed rude or judgy. He was flawed, of course. They both were. Hoo boy they both make some HUGE mistakes and don’t always handle things appropriately and they both get into a lot of trouble. But overall they were both genuinely good people who deserved each other and happiness. Stanley deserved so much more than he’d been dealt and so did Alvie. I’m glad they found each other. My heart is so full.
When My Heart Joins the Thousand made me laugh and cry and swoon and I could not recommend it more. I’m so glad I have another autistic book to add to my favorites pile. Alvie and Stanley will forever be in my heart and their story is one that I’ll never forget.
One last thing: I don’t want it to seem like I’m praising and bowing down to an allistic author simply for not writing harmful autistic rep. That would be like praising someone for showing basic human decency. Which should be something everyone strives for when writing about marginalized characters. BUT Steiger did an amazing job. She obviously did her research and didn’t half ass anything. I don’t know if she hired sensitivity readers or just talked to a lot of autistic people, but it’s clear that she knows what’s harmful and what isn’t. And for that I’m very grateful. Take note, for those of you looking to write autistic characters. Learn from autistic people, not our caregivers or the so called ‘autism experts’ who try to speak for us. That is all! Such a lovely book.