Catherine, the protagonist of Rules, is a normal twelve-year-old girl dealing with the universal preteen issues of friendships, family relationships, and identity. However, Catherine’s situation is complicated by the fact that her eight-year-old brother, David, is autistic. Because Catherine’s parents are both overburdened with work, Catherine must care for her brother a good deal of the time. As a result, she has become more responsible, careful and considerate, but also more nervous, preoccupied and inhibited than the average preteen.
For much of the novel, Catherine struggles between her desire to be “normal,” to interact with others her own age without the burden of her “abnormal” brother, and her desire to care for and protect David.Because Catherine has spent her entire life with an autistic person, she has learned to see beyond behaviors others think of as strange or off-putting, to appreciate her brother as a unique, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately lovable and endearing person. This ability comes in handy when Catherine strikes up a friendship with Jason, a boy who is both physically handicapped and unable to verbalize normally. Because of her experience with David, Catherine is able to see beyond Jason’s “different” exterior and connect with him on a deeper level.
However, for Catherine, the greatest difficulty is integrating her relationships with David and Jason and her friendships with what she considers “regular” people. At the opening of the novel, Catherine tries as hard as she can to keep these two sides of her life separate, and as a result, she feels her identity “ripping in half.” However, by the end of the novel, she has begun to bring the two sides of herself together, attending the dance with Jason and introducing him to her more “normal” classmates Kristi and Ryan.
David is a kind eight-year-old boy who has trouble adjusting to the world around him because of his autism. David is incredibly sensitive to noise, and loud noises make him scream in pain and frustration; he needs things to go exactly as planned, and gets upset if anything forces him to deviate from his normal routine. For example, even though David’s dad is often late arriving home, every day David counts down the seconds until his expected arrival, and he becomes more and more upset the later his father is. David has a love for rules, and for listening to and repeating phrases from his favorite storybooks; he cannot deal with maybes and unknowns. Because David was kicked out of his regular school, his main interactions are with his therapist and his family—he does not seem to have any friends his own age. As a result, David shares a particularly close bond with his sister, and despite the trouble he sometimes causes, his love for her is always clear.
Jason Morehouse is a teenage boy Catherine meets at the clinic where her brother attends therapy. Jason is in a wheelchair and unable to speak, instead communicating by pointing to word cards, so he meets with a speech therapist at the clinic. At the beginning of the novel, Jason seems withdrawn, frustrated and uninterested in the world; however, as his relationship with Catherine progresses, he becomes more and more engaged and alive. With both her companionship and the word cards she makes for him, Catherine gives Jason his first chance to connect and confide with someone his own age—as Catherine realizes, he does not even have the word “friend” at his disposal until she makes a “friend” card for him. As Jason’s ability to express himself grows, so does his determination to do things for himself: he insists on a motorized wheelchair he can control on his own. For his birthday, Catherine gives Jason a guitar...
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that, along with the electric keyboard he already owns, allows him to express himself in his own unique way. Finally, Jason defies societal expectations by accompanying Catherine to a dance and, despite his limitations, dancing with her.
Catherine’s parents are overburdened but well-meaning—they clearly love their children but are so busy with work and dealing with David’s autism that they cannot give either child the emotional attention they need. Catherine’s father, who works long hours out of the home so his wife can stay home with David, is the more physically absent of the two.Her mother, however, is equally absent in her own way—trying to work from home and address all the issues caused by David’s autism, she is unable to devote much emotional energy to her children. However, at the important moments, Catherine’s parents do pull through for their children: her mother tells Catherine that what other people think does not matter, thus giving Catherine the impetus to invite Jason to the dance. Her father responds to Catherine’s demand that “we matter” by leaving work to drive Catherine to the dance and spending time with both children.
Catherine describes her new neighbor Kristi as one of the “cool” kids. Catherine is glad for Kristi’s company but a bit disappointed that Catherine is more the type to talk about boys and plan a community dance, less the type to go swimming in a creek and dig up mud from the bottom. Kristi’s complicity when her boyfriend, Ryan, makes fun of David also disappoints Catherine. However, at the end of the novel, Catherine seems accepting and open-minded about Catherine’s friendship with Jason, even though he is in a wheelchair.