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In this post, we talk about our views on Kay Kerr’s 2020 novel, Please Don’t Hug Me. Please note that this blog post contains spoilers!
Mental health issues covered: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), grief and anxiety
Additional content warnings for the book itself: death of a family member, difficult relationships, sex, alcohol, slut-shaming (challenged).
About the Book
A funny-serious story about what happens when you stop trying to be the person other people expect you to be and give yourself a go.
Erin is looking forward to Schoolies, at least she thinks she is. But things are not going to plan. Life is getting messy, and for Erin, who is autistic, that’s a big problem. She’s lost her job at Surf Zone after an incident that clearly was not her fault. Her driving test went badly even though she followed the instructions perfectly. Her boyfriend is not turning out to be the romantic type. And she’s missing her brother, Rudy, who left almost a year ago.
But now that she’s writing letters to him, some things are beginning to make just a tiny bit of sense.
About the Author
Kay Kerr is a former journalist and community newspaper editor from Brisbane, now living on the Sunshine Coast with her husband and daughter and working as a freelance writer.
Kay was writing Please Don’t Hug Me, her debut novel, when she received her own autism-spectrum diagnosis.
Please Don’t Hug Me is a modern Australian coming-of-age story. Erin is a likable teenager, funny and reflective, with pretty standard teen worries like finishing high school, work trouble, and fitting in. But unlike her classmates, Erin has been diagnosed with autism.
Life with autism
In case you don’t know, autism spectrum disorder (sometimes referred to as ASD, or just autism) is a neurodevelopmental condition which affects how people think, feel, and interact with others. For example, unlike Erin’s neurotypical classmates, she has some trouble understanding unwritten social rules; she gets overwhelmed by loud, bright and intense environments; and she is sometimes uncomfortable with touch. We felt that Erin’s autism was integrated well within her storyline. There are some moments which are kind of played for laughs, like Erin’s driving test, but this wasn’t done in an inappropriate or obnoxious way.
Erin spends much of the story trying to compensate for her autism and to fit in, and doesn’t really have a strong sense of self. She keeps a ‘cringe list’ to try to put her ‘cringe’ moments in perspective, and to try to manage her anxiety – it seems to help a little (not that we would necessarily recommend this as a strategy!). She uses nicknames to try to remember names and faces, and tries to go to parties with her friends. She also sees a psychologist, Dr Lim, for support. She has a pretty good relationship with her psychologist, and some of the strategies have helped, although they don’t always seem to ‘get’ each other. They have a reasonably good working relationship, but we got the sense this psychologist might not be the best for Erin in the long term. Dr Lim has good intentions, but at times does not seem to spend much time validating Erin’s experiences. Also, let’s just say that neither of us would smash a plate in front of a client to prove a point!
In the end, we appreciate that the message of the story is not about compensating for autism, but about embracing autism in a world that is designed for neurotypicals. By the end of the book, Erin has learnt a few valuable lessons; there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with being autistic. She doesn’t have to put up with shitty boyfriends or friends who don’t respect or value her. She doesn’t have to suppress her stimming if it helps her. She doesn’t have to go to a party if she doesn’t want to, nor go to Schoolies because it’s what everyone expects her to do.
Relationships and community
The book follows Erin’s journey as she navigates some pretty tricky relationships, including friendships, family relationships and romantic relationships.
Erin has a group of friends at school, but is only really close to one of them: Dee. She’s known Dee since they were both little; Dee has been there for Erin through some tough times, and they have their own routines and ways of communicating. But Dee isn’t always the most supportive, sometimes torn between supporting Erin and the expectations of the other girls in their friendship group (who aren’t exactly the greatest friends to Erin). We kind of expected Erin and Dee’s friendship to end by the book due to a number of frustrations and misunderstandings. But we don’t think it’s that simple, and perhaps both Erin and Dee need to work together to strengthen their friendship. Erin’s relationship with colleague Aggie, which involves more of an authentic connection, may be healthier in the long term. Maybe Dee and Erin won’t be friends for the rest of their lives, and that’s okay. In real life, friendships don’t always last forever (For reference, Elise met most of her close friends after high school! Priscilla’s friendships have also changed since high school, but she also moved to a whole other continent after school ended.😅 )
Central to the book is Erin’s relationship with her brother, Rudy; she writes letters to him throughout the story. MAJOR SPOILER: We don’t find out until much later on that Rudy sadly died in an accident nearly a year ago. Their family is still processing their grief. Erin works through a lot of emotions through the story, including anger towards Rudy, her sadness, and not knowing how or when to talk about him with her parents and younger brother. By the end of the story, Erin seems to have worked through some of her grief; it doesn’t feel quite so raw. It’s a timely reminder that a relationship with a loved one doesn’t end after that person dies.
Final thoughts and star rating
Elise: Overall, this book was an accessible, entertaining and heartfelt window into Erin’s world. It has a number of interesting and complex characters interwoven through the story, and I appreciated the authentic portrayal of autism with some important take-home messages. There is not a huge amount of ‘plot’ in this story, as it is more about Erin’s character growth, so keep that in mind if you prefer your books to be more plot-heavy. It’s also a little frustrating reading this as an adult and wanting to take Erin under your wing, older sister-style, and tell her to dump the people in her life who are bringing her down! But I digress: I would definitely recommend Please Don’t Hug Me for teens, or older readers who want to learn more about autism in teenagers.
Priscilla: I read most of this book in one day because it was a compelling, easy read. I adore Erin (but would definitely refrain from hugging her). I enjoy the lack of exposition, and discovering details as we get to know Erin’s relationships more and as she’s willing to talk about them. I appreciated how the book highlights that individuals on the spectrum have ‘invisible’ struggles: Erin has to work extra hard at social interactions, but others may not always be able to tell. Just because someone appears to be fitting in in a neurotypical world, it doesn’t mean that they don’t find it confusing. And if they don’t fit in, it doesn’t mean they have to. I too would recommend Please Don’t Hug Me for readers who enjoy Young Adult fiction and would like to read an authentic portrayal of a teenage girl with autism.
Relevant mental health resources:
- Yellow Ladybugs is an Australian-based organisation that runs regular informal social events for girls with ASD, generally between the ages of five and sixteen. They aim to foster a sense of belonging and to connect the girls with their tribe. They also have a page with a registry of practitioners who may be able to assist with girls and ASD.
- Dr Tony Attwood is a psychologist who specialises in girls and women with Asperger’s (or now known as ASD). He has written several publications on Asperger’s syndrome. Here is a video of Dr Attwood talking about good mental health for autistic girls and women.
- Aspect is an Australian-based organisation that provides information about ASD as well as how to find support.
More stories like Please Don’t Hug Me
- We recently reviewed The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, a romance featuring a protagonist with ASD.
- C.G. Drews (also known as paperfury in the book blogging community) has compiled a list featuring stories about people with autism. We haven’t read most of the books on the list yet, but let us know what you think if you have!
- We are keen to read another #LoveOzYA book, Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal by Anna Whataley. This book also features an autistic protagonist.
- We are also keen to check out Clem Bastow’s new book, Late Bloomer: How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life.
- Kay Kerr’s new book Social Queue comes out in September 2021
Voices from Lived Experience
C.G. Drews, who is also autistic, reviewed the book, describing it as “introspective, utterly realistic, and full of heart”. If you have autism and have read this book, please let us know what you think!