In House Rules, Jodi Picoult explores one of the more polarizing and confounding issues facing parents today: Are childhood vaccines somehow linked to the hauntingly frequent diagnoses of autism in today’s kids? And what does our society need to do to accommodate this growing group of people who communicate differently, if at all?

Jacob Hunt looks like any other teenager, but once he starts talking it becomes clear that he’s not, as parents of children with autism often say, “neurotypical.” Dismal at understanding the social cues that guide human interaction, he doesn’t understand why kids at his high school don’t want to hear about his vast, gory knowledge of forensic science. He’s highly sensitive to unexpected situations, the sound of crumpling paper and the color orange. He’s mystified when local cops don’t appreciate him showing up at crime scenes (his mom gave him a police scanner as a well-meaning but misguided birthday gift) to point out all the clues they’ve missed. Jacob’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome—and his involvement in local crimes—has made his family outcasts in their own small New England town.

“I just don’t get the social hints that other people do,” Jacob says. “So if I’m talking to someone in class and he says, ‘Man, is it one o’clock already?’ I look at the clock and tell him that yes, it is one o’clock already, when in reality he is trying to find a polite way to get away from me. I don’t understand why people never say what they mean.” Jacob’s only friend is his social skills tutor, Jess, a student at the local college. But when Jess turns up dead, all clues point to Jacob. Even his mother, who has devoted her life to every therapy and supplement that can improve Jacob’s quality of life, is left wondering whether her son is capable of snapping.

Picoult is at her razor-sharp best with House Rules. It’s both a tender look at the depths of a mother’s love and a searing examination of how we treat those who are different, and whether we expect them to play by the same rules.

Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.

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