With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe is probably my singular favorite book series. The manga tells the story of mother Sachiko Azuma and her son Hikaru, who was diagnosed as autistic when he was two years old. The books and chapters are segmented according to Hikaru's development - following him from birth, to diagnosis, to his primary school years, all the way up to high school. Hikaru's mother is the primary point of view that the story is told from - although Hikaru's and other side characters' POVs are included and explored from time to time.
I feel like it would be very easy to dismiss this series based solely on its synopsis. There have been so many cruel - or at least in poor taste - narratives surrounding or written by the neurotypical caretakers of autistic children that rightly leave a terrible impression on the concept as a whole. However, I do think this series does an incredible job with its portrayal of autism - both in terms of Hikaru's individual character (and the other autistic side characters) and the way its narrative and neurotypical characters perceive and understand them.
However, the first book in particular can be difficult to get through, since the first handful of chapters are dedicated to Sachiko's recurrent fumbling (or even, at times, cruelty) with regards to Hikaru and his disability, particularly before she is able to get him diagnosed or understand what this diagnosis means. I do not think this early portrayal is a misstep, per se, in fact I think it's likely to be realistic, but it is at times difficult to swallow or get through. Before Sachiko understands what Autism is and is able to get support from Anyone else in her life, she admits to occasionally hitting Hikaru when he is having meltdowns - something the narrative neither excuses nor shies away from. Sachiko later reflects on this time as particularly dark and whenever she thinks back on it she expresses deep regret and a retroactive empathy for how frightening and painful that must have been for Hikaru himself.
Despite this, I do genuinely love this series' portrayal of autism - particularly the respect to autistic individuals that it gives throughout its run. Even though it was presumably written by a Neurotypical author - who says that the story was based on many interviews with families who had autistic children - there is never really a point in the series where it falls into the pitfalls that many narratives like this tend to. Once Sachiko is able to understand what Autism is and how it will impact Hikaru's life, she never wastes time lamenting that she does not have a neurotypical child, she never expresses a strong desire for a cure for Hikaru's autism, and never does anything that would force Hikaru to try to adhere to neurotypical standards of behavior. She is adamant that she is not and will not be 'ashamed' of Hikaru's diagnosis and try to hide it from her peers, she laments that the world is not nearly as accepting of disabled people as it should be, and only ever expresses a desire for the world itself to change rather than expecting Hikaru to.
Hikaru spends most of his early education in 'mainstream' schools and classrooms (meaning that he is integrated with non-disabled students instead of being kept separate from them). His classmates are always appropriately educated on his disability - when they ask why he spins in circles, why he doesn't speak, or why he screams and cries when they switch tasks, the teahcers do not shy away from using appropriate terminology and metaphors to help explain things to them. When Hikaru first goes to a daycare to spend time around peers, another child asks why he carries communication cards that Sachiko and her husband have made for Hikaru to use. The teacher explains "You all haeve things you have trouble with, right? Like jumping rope or doing your buttons. Hikaru has trouble talking, but these magical cards help him out."
Because they are educated and taught how to understand and empathize with Hikaru, his peers accept him wholeheartedly. They help him out when they see him struggle, they look out for him, and ultimately befriend him. Even once they move out of daycare and into school - first grade and onwards - most of the children remain in the same classes together, and they enjoy hanging out with Hikaru and even will often step in to confrton or educate other students - or even adults - who may look down on or make fun of Hikaru.
Although Hikaru is eventually able to speak and use basic phrases to communicate, he is not particularly verbal. Sachiko is able to understand him most of the time, but a complete stranger may struggle to understand why he'll refer to himself in the third person ("Good Morning, Hikaru") or why he'll suddenly start quoting lines from a popular commercial. Rather than spending a grueling amount of time forcing Hikaru to 'use his words', the series instead shows off a variety of alternate forms of communication that are never treated as any less valid than verbal speech.
As mentioned above, when Hikaru is very small, Sachiko and her husband use a polaroid camera to create basic communication cards for Hikaru to use. As he gets older and learns to read a bit better, they begin writing down simple questions with Yes or No answers - or a small selection of different choices - included on the page, to accommodate Hikaru's trouble with auditory processing and to allow him to answer nonverbally by pointing. Although Hikaru personally never uses them due to the family's financial restraints, the books do show off other methods such as Type to Talk technology or burgeoning Alternative Augmented Communication devices to educate the readers.
The series also does a pretty decent job of addressing ableism in its variety of forms. Oftentimes other parents of students at schools Hikaru attends will loudly complain about him having meltdowns or simply being included in the same classroom as their children. While their attitudes aren't always changed, they are always addressed by Sachiko herself or by the school's teachers or administrative workers, who explain what Autism is and how best to accommodate Hikaru while also stressing how important it is for everyone to be inclusive of disabled people and accept us into every community. One of the more longstanding ableist characters is Sachiko's mother-in-law, who is constantly shown to be struggling with or perpetuating ableist ideas and concerns. She initially blamed Sachiko's parenting as the 'reason' why Hikaru became autistic - although the in-text educators and the comic's commentary are quick to put this myth to rest. She's often embarrassed by Hikaru's behavior and the frank way Sachiko and her husband handle disclosing Hikaru's diagnosis - instead often trying to avoid being seen with him or telling his parents that they should stop telling people that he's autistic. She also holds a blatant favoritism towards Hikaru's neurotypical younger sister, and often says she is hoping for the day that Hikaru will become 'normal'.
Although she is a recurrent character, the narrative never spends any time entertaining her perspective or validating her opinions. The other characters and the narrative are always clear that She is the one in the wrong. Because she does not want to acknowledge Hikaru's disability, she is often unwilling to accommodate him, and emphasis is always placed on how this is a detriment for Hikaru and a bad choice on her part. When she only seems willing to engage with Hikaru when he is impressing her (for example, Hikaru becomes quite adept at identifying and taking care of vegetables in a garden), it is always framed as implicitly selfish that she's refusing to acknowledge him as a whole person. The one-off ableist characters are treated the same, explicitly or implicitly pointed out as selfish and close-minded, and whenever Sachiko does feel hurt or embarrassed by their comments, she never places the onus of this onto Hikaru's shoulders. It's always put as clearly as possible that she wishes that those in the wrong would be more understanding and patient, that they would be willing to accept and respect Hikaru the way he deserves to be treated.
I should stress that the reasons I love this series is not intrinsically tied to the way it handles ableism though, lol. I love it because, despite the ableism that it doesn't shy away from, in many ways it feels almost like an escapist fantasy to me. I love being able to open the books and find an autistic character being treated with respect, being accepted for who they are, and being Accommodated in their disability. I love seeing the panels where Hikaru has been lovingly drawn as stimming with wild abandon - chirping "Water wheel archimedes" to himself as he hops and flaps and plays with water. I love the ways other characters work to communicate with him, the way his methods of communication - whether that's echoing words verbally, or picking an answer off a sheet of paper, or leaving the situation to go shut himself in a quiet closet - are respected and heard. I love the way his educators focus on helping him live his life - focusing their attention on making sure he has ways to effectively communicate with anyone, and that he is able to use and understand money and paying for things in a store, and how to cross the street safely, and how to do chores and take care of himself in a way that is healthy For Him and not just Expected by wider society.
I love how people who are confused or even made anxious by Hikaru are educated on his disability, and how many of them grow understanding or even fully supportive of Hikaru. One such scene involves the owner of a small local shop who initially gets angry at Hikaru for shoplifting, but who relents when Sachiko explains that he's autistic and doesn't intriniscally understand that people need to pay before they take items from a store. Not only does he apologize for shouting, but he offers to help Sachiko teach Hikaru how to use money and how to go through the process of going through the store's check out, letting them visit the shop on a routine and patiently helping Sachiko and Hikaru until Hikaru is able to run the errand on his own.
I love that Hikaru is a complete character in himself. Although, since Sachiko is the POV character, we never really get a chance to see what he is thinking or feeling outside of external behaviors and how they're interpreted by those around him, Hikaru is NOT merely a walking collection of autistic traits. He is autistic in a way that is unique to him and there are several other autistic characters scattered throughout the series who have their own unique autistic experiences and traits that define them. Hikaru has interests - he likes trains and the _ game series. He has preferences, and desires, and character - all of which remain realistically consistent as he gets older. He is never forced into the role of portraying a kind of Universal Representation, he is a whole person in himself. I love how austitic people are never treated as a monolith - through a variety of educators and other autistic characters, it's always made clear that each autistic person is their own individual. Hikaru doesn't like loud noises and struggles to appear interested in other people, but Hiroaki is very exuberant and often struggles to maintain personal boundaries with other people. Hikaru struggles to speak verbally outside of echolalia, but Ryota is hyperverbal and struggles with taking things too literally when people talk to him.
Anyway, there is so much about this series that I like and appreciate. I first read the very first book when I was a freshman in high school, since they had it in the school library, but only the first book lmao. I didn't get a chance to read the rest of the series until I was a senior and I bought the whole series from a few different online used book stores. It was, possibly, one of my first introductions to Autism and what it was, what it looked like - I think I can say with certainty that it was definitely significant in shaping the way I perceived it. I think I was a sophomore when I first began seriously looking into autism as something I might have, and although I was already well-steeped into the neurodiversity movement by the time I was able to finish reading the series, it was definitely impactful. I've moved some four or five times since I bought the books - in and out of colleges and other homes - and no matter what, I always make sure that all eight books are one of the first things I have packed to bring with me.
The one thing that disappoints me immeasurably about this series is the fact that it was cut short earlier than planned. Keiko Tobe, unfortunately, fell ill and was unable to complete the series as she had originally planned. Although the translated books that I purchased includes several drafted chapters at the end, the series lacks a finalized or satisfactory conclusion because she wasn't able to finish working on it. I wish that she had gotten the opportunity to fully realize the series as she had envisioned it, and that she had gotten the chance to bring Hikaru's story to a satisfying conclusion. Still, I will always be appreciative of the work that she did manage to finish, and this series will stay close to my heart for a long time.