House Rules by Jodi Picoult is the story of Jacob Hunt, an 18-year-old autistic man from Townsend, VT accused of murder. Jacob, described as having Asperger Syndrome, lives with his mother, Emma Hunt, and 15-year-old brother, Theo Hunt.
Jacob’s number one special interst is forensics, and he has a habit of getting involved in local crime scenes and offering unsolicited advice to the police. His favourite pastimes include studying fingerprints, constructing fake crimescenes to test his family’s investigative skills, and watching reruns of Crimebusters, a fictitious TV cop drama.
However, the tables are turned when his social skills tutor, college student Jess Ogilvy, is found dead, and Jacob becomes the prime suspect in her murder.
The novel is written from the first-person perspective of several different characters, rotating from chapter to chapter. We gradually come to learn of the inner mental struggles of everyone involved–their feelings, desires, fear, and prejudices. Theo is shown to have some challenges of his own, often feeling ignored and neglected due to his mother’s overwhelming focus on Jacob.
Emma is characterized by her fears and regrets–the regret of losing her husband, the fear of finding new romance, the fear of how to handle her sons, the fear that Jacob might actually be a murderer, and the regret that Jacob’s autism was her fault.
The overarching theme of this book is frustration and miscommunication. Frustration on the part of the reader, since the characters constantly seem to do the wrong thing and miss obvious solutions. Miscommunication on the part of the characters, since their misfortune is largely due to failing to speak up, not listening to each other, and being afraid of the truth.
On a positive note, I believe this is a fairly realistic portrayal of family life in the home of an autistic teenager, and any autistic person, especially someone who has been the subject of false criminal suspicions, will likely sympathize with Jacob’s predicament.
Emma is a deeply flawed character, but I think also relatable and honest–she is probably typical of a mother who has been bombarded with autism cure misinformation since her son was diagnosed and has never been exposed to an opposing viewpoint.
On the downside, it doesn’t seem like the author is supportive of the neurodiversity movement. Emma repeatedly discusses cures and special diets, and these views are rarely ever challenged.
In one bizarre scene, some autistic self-advocates show up at the Hunts’ house with literature on neurodiversity, and Emma tells them to go away. The idea that Emma would be dismissive is certainly believable, but the narrative portraying the advocates as know-nothing interfering kooks is inexcusable.
The biggest problem, by far, was Jacob’s seemingly-total lack of agency in his own life. This could be read in two ways. One could read it positively as showing the struggle faced by an autistic youth, who, even as an adult, is treated as a child; and everyone talks over him, distrusts him, and fails to recognize his autonomy.
One could also read it negatively, as the tragic story of a disabled person who is unfairly subjected to adult laws and expectations while having the social skills and reasoning abilities of a child. In the end, it’s up to the reader’s interpretation.
I would heartily recommend this to most autistic readers, with the only caveat being that it could be triggering for anyone who has had negative experiences with the police and/or justice system. It is well-written from a literary standpoint, and is an important window into the minds of neurotypicals, and how they perceive us as autistics.
My recommendation for neurotypical readers would be much more hesitant. For strong allies of the neurodiversity movement, go ahead. For anyone else, especially parents of newly-diagnosed autistic kids, I would strongly suggest not reading this until you have a better background in neurodiversity. The narrative of autism demonstrated in this book, even if indirectly, could be harmful to someone who doesn’t have the tools to read it critically.