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Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express

Review

Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express

Written from the shared perspectives of Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Peete and RJ Peete, SAME BUT DIFFERENT details the struggles and joys of a family touched by autism. Although the Peete family deals with autism on a daily basis, the story is a fictional account, as this format allows more freedom, particularly for twins Ryan and RJ --- RJ having been formally diagnosed with autism at the age of three.

In SAME BUT DIFFERENT, Ryan and RJ assume the names Callie and Charlie, respectively, and alternate their characters’ chapters to demonstrate their different perspectives. At the start of the book, for example, the twins are preparing for the first day of school when they will not be in the same classes for the first time, as Charlie has been held back and forced to repeat ninth grade. As Callie expresses her worries and concerns that she will not be able to look out for Charlie as she has their whole lives, Charlie’s chapters indicate a righteous sense of independence. He is excited to make friends and go to class without his “naggy,” watchful sister peering over his shoulder at every turn.

"The Peete family provides some real insight into the mind of a child with autism, showing us how even minor misunderstandings can really affect a person who has trouble picking up on tones and hidden meanings."

Although the reader certainly roots for Charlie, it is soon apparent that the world is just too unkind for a child who cannot understand hidden meanings, double entendres, or even plain abuse. In one chapter, Charlie describes his excitement at making friends who save a seat for him at the lunch table and have even invited him to eat pizza with them on Friday, provided that he brings some money. Immediately something seems off, but it is not until Callie takes over that we realize the boys have requested that Charlie bring a whopping 50 dollars --- for slices of school-made pizza! Callie and Charlie’s parents have prepared for these sorts of things, but it is still Callie who is first on the scene, bearing witness to her brother’s abuse at the hands of greedy teenagers. You can imagine how this makes Callie feel, as she is torn not only between a sense of right and wrong, but between a desire to protect Charlie while also letting him learn from his own mistakes. Ryan Peete conveys her dilemma smartly and succinctly, making it clear that there is far more to being the sister of a child with autism than meets the eye.

As SAME BUT DIFFERENT continues, we see more and more of Charlie’s personality take over, and he soon proves that he is highly intelligent and brave. This is by no means a boy who is willing to fall back on his autism diagnosis to escape the “real world.” Charlie wants normal teenage boy things --- a girlfriend and license --- and many things that we take for granted --- friends who treat him like the “normal” twin, and a mother and sister who are not always watching him so closely. The Peete family provides some real insight into the mind of a child with autism, showing us how even minor misunderstandings can really affect a person who has trouble picking up on tones and hidden meanings. Throughout it all, Charlie does all he can to be an invaluable member of his family and friend circle, often finding ways to use his particular idiosyncrasies to add a new level to family activities. In one humorous chapter, Charlie finds a way out of family football games by using his outstanding mathematical skills to calculate each family member’s statistics. He may not enjoy playing the actual game, but he still finds a way to participate. Likewise, RJ's contributions to the book provide readers with a wealth of information and emotional connections --- as he says, "I may have autism, but autism doesn't have me."

If there is any shortcoming in SAME BUT DIFFERENT, it is only the length. At a mere 224 pages --- with tons of educational backmatter --- the story never really has time to develop its own voice, separate from that of the Peetes. It does not feel like a work of fiction, but rather a thinly-veiled memoir. Of course, knowing that the Peetes are writing from firsthand experience makes the story every bit as powerful as a longer work, but I would still love to see what this impressive family can do with a more complicated plot.

That said, Holly Robinson Peete’s closing letter brought real tears to my eyes. The things she has done and continues to do for her children are daunting, terrifying and, above all, dominated by love. I know both of her children will go far under her guidance.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 30, 2016

Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express
by Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, and RJ Peete