Author: Kate Foster
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary
Publisher: Walker Books Australia
Published: 7th April 2021
Synopsis: At home, Alex’s best friend is Kevin the cockapoo, although what he wants most of all is a friend at school. But that is harder than he ever expected. A touching story about learning that friendship isn’t one size fits all and is often found where you
Everything is changing for 11-year-old Alex and, as an autistic person, change can be terrifying. With the first day of high school only a couple of months away, Alex is sure that having a friend by his side will help. So, he’s devised a plan – impress the kids at school by winning a trophy at the PAWS Dog Show with his trusty sidekick, Kevin. This should be a walk in the park . . . right?
- The author based her story on real-life experience. After adopting a spoodle called Claude, he made an immediate bond with her youngest autistic son. He seemed to sense that her son needed someone to help him always feel safe and calm. Claude knew when he was sad or stressed or anxious and would become a barrier, sitting close by, even standing over him, and comforting him.
- A story that demonstrates how autistic brains don’t always come with the templates of human interaction and emotion that neurotypical people usually have. And shows how many autistic people have to build these from scratch, learning through mirroring and masking and often hard emotional lessons and confusing rejection.
Alex is almost finished primary school – which means a huge change that he doesn’t feel ready for – high school. Alex has autism, and he knows he struggles, and he’s always found it hard to make friends – but maybe this year will be different. The PAWS Dog Show is coming to his hometown – and if he can enter his cockapoo, Kevin, and win an award, he might make a friend who can help him in his high school journey. Easy, right? But between some of the kids at school giving him a hard time, or making his daily routine hard, a new neighbour moving in and trying to navigate how to act socially with the help of his family. Alex may discover that friendship is what happens when you aren’t looking for it. So how will Alex and Kevin find the friends they’ve always hoped to have?
PAWS is a touching story about neurodiversity and autism and what it is like for neurodiverse people navigating a world that isn’t created for them, and having to learn how to cope, how to communicate and find ways of being themselves whilst still trying to reach the demands of a society that expects so much of them especially when they may not always understand or know how to do this, or when they may need help. We see the world through the eyes of Alex, and in doing so, we learn what is important to him: art, running and Kevin. He’s good at art, he’s good at running and he’s good with his cockapoo, Kevin. Yet when unpredictable things start happening, it is Derek, Alex’s new neighbour and Kevin, who will help guide him. Friends.
Alex must work through his emotions and build the templates that non-autistic people have already – finding ways to connect and communicate with others in his daily life as he grows up and starts to become independent. These themes are told sensitively and delicately as Kate draws on the experiences of her own family to craft the story and allow people like her son and Alex to see themselves represented on the page. Alex’s mirroring and masking are emotionally draining for him – and this can be felt as the reader. I could feel everything Alex did, and experienced it with him, giving insight into how hard it can and must be at times when you just want people to understand what is happening in your life. How it feels when you can’t always articulate what you are feeling, and when you just want people to understand but don’t know how to ask them or show them. A book like this is important for everyone to read – so autistic and neurodivergent people can see themselves in it, and so neurotypical people can gain an understanding of what it is like to have autism, and hopefully, show them how they can try and interact with someone like Alex, and build understanding and friendship.
Common themes in this book are rejection and friendship, something that everyone has experienced and that yes, we all deal with in different ways. But for Alex, it feels like it is much worse, and he doesn’t understand the why or the subtext – for him, it is a black and white issue that needs careful consideration and help to understand what is going on. We can all understand Alex’s frustration at being rejected – he just reacts in a different way, and that is what others need to understand – that he does get confused easily. I really felt for him when other characters sounded like they were being vague or didn’t explain things properly to him – it was like his frustration was tenfold to what it might be for others. This was written so well, so effectively that I think all readers will, I hope, feel what Alex is feeling and want to help him in any way they can.
At its heart, this is a beautiful story about friendship, being unique, and finding those people – like Derek and his family, like Angel – who will accept you for who you are and help you wherever they can and stick with you. It will build and grow empathy for those who are not the same as others and celebrates these differences and shows that they are just as much a part of who we are as eye colour or hair colour. Filled with emotion and friendship, PAWS is a must read for all ages!