Continuing from Part One. On with the show!
Chapter 4: Kristy goes to the Felders' for their first meeting. Kristy has done her research, such as it was. She looked up "autism" and found a reference to "schizophrenia," which led her to an explanation of schizophrenia as "withdrawal from reality." Then, I guess, she was too confused to look up anything else. Good grief, how did people do research before Google? Anyway, at first glance Susan is a collection of autistic stereotypes. She wrings her hands, clicks her tongue, and does not respond immediately to her mother.
Mrs. Felder gives Kristy a Cliffs Notes explanation of autism. Most of it is still thought to be true today (symptoms vary from person to person; it is more common among boys; symptoms show up by age three), but then Mrs. Felder tells her that the syndrome is rare. The much-touted statistic today is 1 in 150. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that more people have autism, just that more people are diagnosed with autism. And the definition has broadened. People with Asperger's Syndrome (on the mild end of the spectrum) are included in that "1 in 150" statistic, which was actually unheard of in the US until several years after this book was written. There is also no mention of the "caused by vaccines" theory, which was not suggested until 1998. By the way, there is no proven link between autism and vaccinations.
Mrs. Felder goes on to explain that, while Susan may improve if she learns some meaningful language, she will never be "normal." Kristy thinks, "I understood what Mrs. Felder wasn't saying: Susan's future looked bleak." Congratulations, you have established this as one of the most depressing books in the series. We are on page 38. I will not say this is the most depressing book, because I have read Mary Anne and the Memory Garden, AKA "let's retcon a new character as everyone's best friend, only to have her killed by a drunk driver."
Anyway, Mrs. Felder goes on to say that Susan may be autistic, but at least she is a savant. In this case, this means she is a piano prodigy who can play any piece of music after hearing it once. She can also name the day of the week for any date in the past hundred years, a talent which she demonstrates to an astonished Kristy.
Mrs. Felder laments that Susan never initiates conversations and does not communicate. Sigh. There is a difference between "does not speak" and "does not communicate." She may not communicate with her parents as often as they would like, or in the way they prefer, but "communication" is a broad range of actions. And anyway, Susan does speak. We just heard her speak.
Kristy agrees to take the job, secretly resolving to prove to the Felders that Susan does not need to be shipped off to her new boarding school at the end of the month. Mrs. Felder comments, "Don't worry. Susan won't be upset when I leave. She never is. She has no connection to me or to anyone."
I find myself feeling very sorry for Mrs. Felder. Although she is from after the time when autism was thought to be the mother's fault for not showing enough affection (seriously!), in the book it is still considered nearly a death sentence. Today, there are many special education teachers and other professionals who love and even prefer working with autistic children. They would help her see that Susan is not a lost cause, even as different from the "neuro-typicals" as she is.
Kristy is surprised by the "babyish" toys in the backyard, which include a sandbox, swing set, and tricycle. First, how did they find a tricycle sized for an eight-year-old? Second, since when are eight-year-olds too sophisticated for swing sets? But Susan ignores her toys and decides to gallop around the yard instead. Kristy takes the opportunity to spy on the new neighbors, the Hobarts From Australia. The boys are being teased because they like "fairy floss" and do not know that here in America, we call it "cotton candy." They are also taunted about "Crocodile Dundee stuff." All right, I realize that kids will tease people for just about any reason. But the "prejudice=bad" Aesop gets an awful lot of coverage throughout the series. I always used to wonder if Stoneybrook was particularly bass-ackwards, or if I just grew up in a town where people were more accepting than normal. Not to say that my school was free of bullying, just that the kids chose different reasons to pick on people.
Chapter 5 is a babysitting chapter. Jessi and Mallory, the two club members in 6th grade instead of 8th, are babysitting Mallory's seven younger siblings. After the kids declare there is nothing to do, Mallory suggests going to play with the Hobarts. We find out that their cute new nickname is "Crocs," as in "Crocodile Dundee." Of course, now I immediately think of those trendy rubber shoes. Mallory points out that this name-calling is not very nice, and reminds her siblings about how they used to hate being called the "Spider" kids (because there are eight of them). Jessi, the Token Black Chick, points out that she has been called a lot worse.
Jessi's status as Token Black Chick is brought up in every single book she appears in, just to point out that it does not matter that she is black. Oddly, Claudia's status as Token Asian Chick is not mentioned nearly as often. I guess only the really prejudiced in Stoneybrook have problems with people from Japan...
Anyway, the kids all head over to the Hobarts' as Mal and Jessi point out that people from Australia are not that different after all. They even wear "jeans and stuff." So the kids all start making friends with each other. This includes Mallory, who has a crush on the oldest Hobart boy (also in 6th grade). The Hobart boys are taunted by more neighbors and chased of by Ben, "who is tall." Thank you so much for that helpful bit of information.
Chapter 6: Kristy tells the other club members about Susan. Jessi and Mal compare her to the Hobarts, because they are outcasts too. The other girls tease Mallory for having a crush on Ben. Not much else happens.
Coming soon: Part three (In Which Everyone Babysits And Both Plots Are Advanced).