Autistic Author, Artist, Advocate, and Speaker

Category: Reviews

Book Review: The Luis Ortega Survival Club

The cover of the book The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes. A colorful digital art image of four people facing the viewer in a high school hallway: a person with white skin, a purple shirt and green hair; a person with brown skin, a red shirt, and black hair; a person with black skin, a pink shirt and black hair; and a person with black skin, a yellow shirt and black hair with a pink watchcap.

The Luis Ortega Survival Club by Sonora Reyes,
Balzer + Bray, 2023.

Content note: sexual assault; exploitation of the vulnerabilities of women, autistic people, and people of color; victims being unheard.

The Luis Ortega Survival Club is a serious and important novel that is also a compelling read with moments of humor and joy appropriately mixed in. It is marketed as a YA novel and I am reviewing it as a 56-year-old Autistic adult. It is a novel almost entirely about women of color (I noticed only one white character in the story) and I am a white, transmasculine, non-binary person. So I will start by apologizing for my inevitable oversights as a person outside the demographics of the novel and its intended readers.

As a writer and an Autistic reviewer, I read fiction on multiple levels and I will review this novel the same way. This review will address the questions: Is The Luis Ortega Survival Club a good novel? Is the Autistic character good representation? Is this novel politically and/or socially important?

This is a very well-written novel. The plotting is tight and the twists the story took were not predictable. I found myself 3/4 of the way through this novel, still feeling anxious: would the villain get what was coming to him? It really wasn’t clear if, or even how, the novel could have a satisfying ending because Reyes kept the story moving and turning throughout. Yes, the ending was satisfying! (No spoilers!) It tied all the story threads together and there was enough foreshadowing for the ending to make sense and not feel like it came out of nowhere.

There were only two spots where I felt pulled out of the story for a moment: one was when the protagonist used the more medical sounding phrase “self stimulatory behavior” before shortening it to the more common “stim”. It pulled me out of the story because it didn’t feel as accurate to how autistic people tend to talk about stimming. If the full medical term gets used, it happens second, in the explanation of what a “stim” is.

The other spot where my head was pulled out of the story is during a serious conversation between Ariana and her parents. It was a great conversation, it just felt too “easy” for me. (This could be a generational thing. My parents were members of the “Silent Generation” but Ariana’s parents are more likely “Generation X” or even older members of the “Millennial” generation.) I can’t say more about that conversation, because it would require spoilers, but I will say that even though I couldn’t relate to parents sharing with their teen child on such a deep level, I was still emotionally moved and I found the content of the conversation believable.

Other than those two, minor moments, the book COMPLETELY captivated me, pulling me in and through a story that felt very real. In some places, a little bit too real, considering the subject matter. I survived my own “Luis Ortega” so this story was personally affecting for me in that respect.

Luis Ortega is a predatorial high school boy. He targets high school girls and non-binary students assigned female for sexual encounters that range from highly pressured (which is to say, non-consensual) to outright r*pe. The novel opens with Ariana struggling to cope with the aftermath of her own encounter with Luis Ortega. Reyes writes this difficult story with great sensitivity: we know what Luis did but we never have to watch him in action. The novel is intense enough as it is. Showing the assaults in any kind of detail might have made the book too emotionally gutting to read. Reyes writes the topic of teen sexual assault with a delicate touch, deft, and professional. Is this book triggering? Oh, yes. Is it manageable? Also yes.

Ariana is a bisexual Latinx teen girl with situational mutism. She has no formal diagnosis but has identified herself as Autistic. This fact alone is realistic and politically important: as a girl and as a person of color, a formal autism diagnosis is much less accessible to her. Sonora Reyes, the author, has disclosed their own autism online (when I searched to see if Reyes were Autistic, I was delighted to find their disclosure on Twitter as part of a terrific thread about why Reyes identifies Zuko, from Avatar the Last Airbender, as Autistic.)

The beginning of a Twitter thread by Reyes about Zuko and autism

Ariana is a classic “unreliable narrator”: from the beginning, we, the readers, are far more angry and outraged than Ariana, who seems more confused and hurt than anything. Throughout the story, Ariana very believably misjudges others, thinking people are friends who clearly aren’t Ariana’s friends, while feeling unsure about people who clearly are her friends. I felt like this made me root more strongly for Ariana to find her way through the emotional and social maze she was stuck in.

Ariana is a strong character with a lot of personal power waiting for her to discover and tap into. The friend circle she develops as the story progresses is filled with equally strong characters I felt invested in. I wholeheartedly recommend The Luis Ortega Survival Club as a novel you won’t want to put down.

I am overjoyed by the autistic representation in this novel. Ariana is believable as an autistic young woman who has managed to fall through enough cracks to be in regular education, making above average grades, and not speaking at school. Because she wasn’t a behavior problem and her grades were exceptional, Ariana could have just gotten passed along through a system where it was clear that an evaluation might find “something” but no one put in the extra work to get her an evaluation because she was doing the work and doing it well. An evaluation would have cost more money, more time, more resources. Her quiet focus on schoolwork meant the system could leave her alone and focus its spotlight on other students who were causing problems or failing academically.

As narrator, Ariana was able to normalize her autistic traits for the reader. Showing us the contents of her mind on every page helps the reader to associate her articulate thoughts with her silent presentation, giving us the unwritten message that we should not judge the depth of another’s mind by the loudness of their speech. The combination of deep insight and social naiveté Ariana demonstrates reminds the reader not to judge people’s understanding based on one realm: someone can be both insightful and naive at the same time (and we Autistic folks often are). Ariana is an example of why concepts like functioning levels and IQ are pointless (and often harmful) pigeonholing of complex human beings.

Politically, The Luis Ortega Survival Club is an important novel, both for autistic representation and for bringing more awareness to the #metoo movement and how necessary it is to keep that movement alive. Reyes’ novel shows us what predatory assault looks like in one setting — a high school — and shows the traumatic effects one person can have on a community. Reyes even brings generational experiences of trauma into the story, making it clear how important it is for all of us to prevent and address assault. Reyes’ story shows how sexual assault affects far more than the individual victims of the assault. Trauma has ripples that touch every single person in a community. No one is left untouched and Reyes’ novel is important for showing that fact without preaching or spoon feeding readers.

The Luis Ortega Survival Club shows a mostly non-speaking autistic character taking charge of her life and acting with agency and autonomy. This novel is not fairy-tale autism like some representations I’ve seen on television. Ariana does not have “autistic super powers” and she isn’t doing anything that leaves the reader shaking their head and thinking “this could never happen in the real world.” Ariana, her thoughts, her choices, her actions, the effects of her actions — all of it is believable and real and very possible in the world outside the novel. That is politically powerful storytelling that has the potential to shift how readers view autism and Autistic people.

Finally, this novel is politically important because it centers Latinx people and culture. Many people from others cultures will read The Luis Ortega Survival Club and learn more about life in Latinx families. As a white reader, I was grateful to learn more about the food and feelings, celebrations and beliefs of the characters.

I grew up in an era where most of the stories available for me to read were about abled, cishet, white people. People of color either didn’t exist, or were minor characters, often servants or slaves. Disabled people were plot devices and objects of pity. Queer people were too scandalous to mention. Growing up with those sorts of novels led me to have skewed, unhealthy ideas of what the world was really like.

I am grateful for novels that center people who are different from me so I can continue to work on opening my worldview. I am grateful that Latinx teens and Queer teens have novels to read about people like them. (I wish I’d had novels with Queer characters to read as an isolated and alienated Queer teen!) I am grateful that the generations coming up are reading novels filled with Queer, BIPOC, Disabled characters. Novels that normalize the diversity of the real world are politically important and The Luis Ortega Survival Club is terrific in that aspect.

I recommend this book as a great read, great autistic representation, and a politically important read. Not only is it a wonderful YA coming of age novel, but it’s a story that readers of all ages can enjoy (if I may use such a pleasant word for a story with such troubling elements) and learn from. The subject matter is difficult, but the treatment is welcoming toward the reader, helping us read about trauma without feeling weighted down or hopeless. This is a positive and empowering novel and I’m glad I read it. I hope you will read it, too.

Life, Animated: A Review

Life Animated Poster

[image description: a movie poster for Life Animated. The movie title is in red on a blue background. The top half of Owen Suskind’s head is at the bottom of the image and line drawings of figures from Disney animated movies surround him.]

Life, Animated: A Review

Last night I went with friends to the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, to see the indie documentary, Life, Animated.

Life, Animated is based on a book by Ron Suskind, a journalist and father to Owen Suskind, the Autistic young man who is the film’s subject and an absolute delight. Owen’s greatest love in life is Disney movies and these films have sustained him through many dark years of isolation and bullying (years Owen calls “glop”) as well as all the disappointments and tragedies a well-lived life can bring. And Owen’s life is well-lived, indeed. He is a charming man, a natural leader, and a deep thinker.

I write this review as an Autistic adult, myself, and I found much in this movie that made me rejoice. I confess that I was troubled by some of the language used, for example when Owen’s father talks about feeling as if someone had kidnapped his child, then later discovers Owen was “still in there” and sets himself about a “rescue mission” to “pull him out” of the “prison of autism.” I was torn at those points in the movie, between an empathy for Owen’s family, feeling themselves at a loss to communicate effectively with their child and a heavy feeling in my heart at hearing an Autistic person described that way.

But I came away from the movie realizing that Owen, himself, had similar feelings about his relationship to the world. While he never directly said, “being an Autistic child was like living in a prison,” he talks about feeling so overwhelmed by all the sounds around him that fought for his attention and made people’s voices “a garble.” And when Owen talks about his glop years, he is clearly distressed by how badly he was bullied and how lonely he felt.

Ron tells a story of connecting with Owen through a hand-puppet of Iago, the parrot from the Disney animated film Aladdin. When Ron spoke to Owen through Iago, Owen said that he was sad because he had no friends. I realized that, as much as I hate the phrase “prison of autism” and how it puts all the blame for communication barriers on the Autistic person and implies that we are the ones who must do all the work to enter someone else’s world, Owen’s experience of growing up Autistic must have felt very much like being imprisoned in glop.

I also came to terms with Ron’s use of language because he didn’t simply decide that Owen was “locked away”  and had to come join “the real world,” but, together with his wife, Cornelia, and Owen’s older brother, Walter, he entered Owen’s world. When the family realized that Owen was using Disney movies to communicate, the whole family used Owen’s love of Disney as an entry portal to join him in his world. That was what made this movie so beautiful to me: that the family encouraged Owen’s deep love for Disney and found their way into his world. Suddenly autism isn’t as much of a “prison” when the whole family has opened that door with love and performed their “rescue” by entering and joining Owen.

I recommend this movie to anyone with a compassionate heart. Owen will charm you. His life progress will cheer you. The way Owen feels his pain deeply will move you. Owen’s ability to process his pain and move through it to the happiness beyond will impress you. Owen is a man with a powerful vision of justice, loyalty, and independence.

While his father produced it, this is Owen’s film in every aspect. Owen’s parents and brother worry about what will happen to Owen when his parents have aged and passed away, but Owen will be just fine and we, the viewers, see that when Owen pauses The Lion King to ask the Disney club he formed at his school, “what was Mustafa teaching Simba?” Members of the club offer insightful responses and Owen agrees, summing up their words by saying, “when our parents can no longer help us, we have to figure out things on our own.”

Owen is figuring things out. He is moving forward into the world, “a little bit nervous and a little bit excited,” and discovering that he can succeed as an adult without losing the magic and wonder of childhood. He has memorized every Disney film and he has internalized the valuable lessons they teach about friendship, courage, and honor.

His parents still get teary-eyed when they talk about the early days when Owen was first diagnosed with autism. But only moments later, they are clearly bursting with pride at what a lovely, strong man Owen has grown to be.  Owen is, in his own words, “a proud Autistic man.” The viewer will leave the theater feeling proud of Owen, too. I found his journey through the darkness of glop and back into the light, with the help of the timeless Disney stories, inspirational for my own journey through the glop of anxiety and depression, loneliness and bullying, isolation and deprivation. Owen has saved his own life with stories and, in the process, become a storyteller in his own right.

Owen’s prison was not autism. He is still Autistic and he will always be Autistic. Owen’s prison was isolation from others. What saved Owen’s life was not being pulled out of autism, as if that were even possible. (It’s not. Autism is how his brain is wired and as deep a part of who he is as the Disney stories he loves so much.) What saved Owen was communication. When Owen’s family learned how to communicate with him, they opened a path of connection that grew stronger every day.

For me, the strongest messages Life, Animated brings to parents of Autistic children is to never give up on finding a way to communicate with your child and never give up on helping your child find a way to communicate with the world.

At one point, Owen communicated by repeating a line from The Little Mermaid over and over: “just your voice. Just your voice.” Owen’s pediatrician said it was merely echolalia, signifying nothing. Ron seemed to agree with the assessment on the surface, but beneath that agreement, he clearly harbored a secret hope that it did signify something. In my opinion, Ron was right. Echolalia is communication, as many parents of Autistic children who speak in quotes will quickly tell you. Many Autistic adults who were echolalic when younger (or still are as adults) but have developed a more independent voice will agree: when they were, or are, echolalic, communication is still happening on their part, even when it’s not getting picked up and understood by the recipient.

Ron did not so quickly dismiss the echolalia as meaningless. Moreover, at one point in the film, Ron extends the question of meaning, asking, “who decides what a meaningful life is?” Ron never directly answers that question, but he doesn’t have to. Owen has a meaningful life by anyone’s measure.

But the only measure that really matters in the end is Owen’s. Owen said he didn’t feel like a hero; he felt like a sidekick. But in re-making the Disney canon into a story that was truly his, he rose to become a hero among sidekicks and the protector of them all. Owen has crafted a meaningful life on his terms.

Life, Animated is a celebration of communication, of victory, and of an Autistic life well-lived. I hope you have a chance to see it soon yourself. The film offers much to think about and discuss as our culture struggles to understand what autism is and how Autistics can be welcomed and honored as full participants in society. We can be helped to find our own way in the world as narrators of our own life stories.




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