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Novels that offer a window on Asperger syndrome

The Enterprise - 9/4/2017

It seems that Sweden just isn't going to stop producing actors with the name of Skarsgård.

The current crop began with Stellan, who American audiences first got to know in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "The Hunt for Red October," and "Good Will Hunting." More recently he had the part of Selvig in a few of Marvel's "Avengers" films. In the midst of his prolific career, four of his sons followed him into the business. Alexander was the most recent Tarzan, Gustaf was in "Kon-Tiki" and plays Floki in the TV series "Vikings," and Valter will soon be seen in "Lords of Chaos.

But it's Bill, previously in "Allegiant," currently in "Atomic Blonde," who landed the coolest Skarsgård role to date when he won the part of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in "It," a character created by Stephen King, then brought to life in the 1990 TV mini-series by Tim Curry. Let's just say that Skarsgård has reinvented, inhabited and run with it, giving the demon-like, child-killing Pennywise a whole new level of terror.

The friendly, chatty, excitable actor, 27, sat down last week in Los Angeles to talk about getting and doing the role. "It" opens on September 8. Q You were one of about 100 actors who auditioned for Pennywise. What do you think you did that made them choose you? A I don't remember. It feels like a life time ago. I remember that I was really excited about the audition.

There was room for so much creativity, I had never had a role like this.

The audition was like pre-pressure. You do whatever you do, and then people respond to it or not. I thought, this is fun, and I spent three days playing around with different things and voices and facial expressions to figure out something that was unique to me, something that I could enhance. This was way before any conceptualizing of who the character was.

Then I did the read, and [director] Andy Muschietti responded to it.

Then we had another one, and we tweaked some things, so there was a process there.

Q Did that process also include your own thoughts of how to play Pennywise physically? A When I was thinking about the concept of what scares ME, it's like unpredictability that does it. So when something happens, if you have explosiveness and quick changes, that's very unsettling. I wanted to incorporate that unpredictability but also have the character to be almost like. you know when you're about to pop a balloon, and you have the tension of what's about to happen? I wanted to incorporate that in the physicality of the role. That was important for the character, but the goofy weirdness in him was important, as well. I wanted to find the balance of something that's kind of strange and off, but ultimately scary and effective.

Q There are a couple of scenes in the film where Pennywise mocks his young victims while he's attacking them. Was that As the wonders of a new school year approach, most parents and children look forward to colorful new classrooms, new teachers, new friends and new routines. But for families of children with Asperger syndrome, September can be an extremely anxiety filled month.

Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder characterized by significant deficits in social and communication skills.

In recent years Asperger's syndrome has exploded into popular culture in both film and books with plot lines that tend to depict these children as either sleuthing geniuses who have witnessed a crime they feel compelled to solve, or as potential suspects.

As a psychologist, I can't help but wonder if this is the result of our collective anxiety about all that we still don't know and understand about autism spectrum disorder. Yet, for better or worse, popular culture novels will hopefully stimulate more dialogue and more needed research.

These novels follow this same trend, but all three do a very fine job of not only conveying the challenges and triumphs of children with Asperger's, but also giving powerful voice to their inner thoughts and perspectives amidst compelling storylines.

· The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: A novel by Mark Haddon is the colorful, captivating, funny and heartfelt story of a 15-year-old boy in Swindon, England, who discovers a murdered poodle on his neighbor's front lawn late one evening. While solving the crime might be a challenge for any child, this task becomes Herculean for a boy with Asperger syndrome.

While he is a whiz at math and science, the nuances and complexity of human emotion and communication are beyond complex for the story's protagonist, Christopher John Francis Boone. He can't read between the lines of adult communication, doesn't like going to unfamiliar places, and can't tolerate excessive noise or touch. Yet, Christopher cares about animals and is determined to find out who would possibly have wanted to kill his neighbor's dog. While Christopher sets out to solve the murder, along the way he is forced to confront hidden family secrets, and the mystery behind his mother's absence.

Told through the voice of Christopher himself, this unique journey for answers is fraught with an undeniably difficult set of challenges as he tries to navigate the adult world of emotion, lies and intrigue. Despite Christopher's courage and intellect, will this challenge exceed his ability to cope or allow him to expand the boundaries of his carefully constructed world?

· Colin Fischer: by Ashley Edward Miller and Zach Stent is a novel that will touch your heart, make you think and make you laugh. Colin Fischer, 14, becomes an unlikely hero when he sets out to exonerate a classmate whom he believes has been wrongly accused of bringing a gun to school.

Colin knows bullies because he has been their frequent target.

The stiff, robotic and often blunt communications that characterize his Asperger's syndrome have made him a bit of an outcast in his freshman class. But solving this case May change all that. What is most surprising is that the boy who has been accused has been one of Colin's strongest tormentors - the very boy who dunked him in a toilet on the first day of school.

While Colin's bluntness and unending reliance on flashcards to help him identify others' emotion set him apart, so too do his strengths. Colin has unparalleled powers of observation, recall and deduction, as well as a heightened sense of fair play. But most of all, Colin is authentic. By the end of this story, he will make you not merely sympathetic to his struggles but cheering his logic, honesty and passion for truth.

· There's More Than One Way Home: Donna Levin's newest novel is a well-written, fast-paced story that will keep you captivated and an intelligent, thought-provoking social commentary on intolerance.

Anna Kagen is a beautiful woman, mother of a 10-yearold son, married to a smart, handsome, district attorney.

But her life is still something of a struggle and is about to get even harder.

Anna's husband is critical and controlling, and her son Jack's Asperger's syndrome sometimes leaves her lonely and overwhelmed as she helps him navigate his social world. When Anna chaperones Jack's class trip to an island preserve in San Francisco Bay, she relaxes for one moment and lets him go off to the bathroom alone. Jack fails to return, and Anna discovers that not only is her son missing but also are three other boys. When they are finally located in a frantic search, one child is found dead at the bottom of a ditch.

Jack is accused of angrily pushing the student to his death by the two classmates who claim to have witnessed his crime, and an angry parent-fueled witch hunt ensues.

Will Anna's love and determination prove enough to clear her son's name and save her fragile marriage amidst spiraling public intolerance and ignorance? Book Smart is a monthly column by Nancy Harris of Scituate, a practicing psychologist and a former instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Follow her on Twitter at Nancy HBook Smart.


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